SAG in spin cycle, vote looms

Agency ownership may violate state law

HOLLYWOOD — The spin battle over SAG’s tentative deal with talent agents has intensified as voting by the guild’s 98,000 members begins this week.

Ballots go out Wednesday and are due back April 19.

Opponents of the pact, which would ease agency ownership restrictions, have released a year-old letter from SAG’s outside legal counsel Robert Bush that asserted the changes sought by the Assn. of Talent Agents would violate the state’s Talent Agency Act.

“The act is designed specifically to maintain the separation of talent agents from the employers of the employees which those agencies represent,” Bush wrote. “The thrust of the ATA proposal is to permit the sharing of profits with those employers, and this is specifically prohibited by the Act.”

Bush also asserted that SAG did not have the power to change state law on the issue of separation of agents and employers. “If the ATA believes that the law should be changed, it cannot accomplish that goal by negotiating an agreement with SAG,” he added. “It needs to go to the state Legislature.”

SAG’s national board agreed on a 57-44 vote last month to endorse the deal on the grounds that the guild’s master franchise agreement needs to be preserved and chaos would ensue from deregulated agents if the deal is voted down.

Opponents contend that the pact creates unacceptable conflicts of interest and argue that state regulations will keep agents in line, citing support from powerful state Senate president pro-tem John Burton. But SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert has said such a strategy is too risky and based on “untested” hypotheses.

Bush told Daily Variety that he wrote the letter in response to a request by former president Bill Daniels to set out the strongest legal grounds for opposing the easing of ownership rules. He noted his positions were not in response to the validity of the arguments and how those arguments would stand up in the public arena.

“The letter really had nothing to do with what the law means in that they did not assess the result of taking this position,” Bush added. “I told Daniels at the time that SAG really needed to negotiate with the agents.”

The letter contains explicit support of the same positions Burton has taken in opposing the deal. Daniels has already warned that SAG could be exposing itself to legal action if it continues to ignore those stances.

Bush also noted in the missive that it was “appropriate” for SAG to insist on higher standards of conduct for agents than those in state law because the tenpercenters are “standing in the shoes” of SAG when they negotiate terms of employment for members.

“SAG cannot permit those acting on behalf of SAG in such a central role to have a business connection with those with whom they are negotiating,” he wrote.

At the time of the letter, SAG and ATA were in the midst of an impasse and negotiations did not relaunch until early this year. During hearings held by Burton last fall, Daniels and SAG attorney David Alter said the state labor commissioner could not agree to a “blanket” waiver of agent ownership rules; the agents contended that they would seek approval for such deals only on a case-by-case basis.

Bush also said the legal work for SAG on this issue has been performed by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld since the start of the year. Akin Gump’s founding partner is Democratic Party heavyweight Robert Strauss.

SAG CEO Bob Pisano has sent multiple emails in support of the deal to the 34,000 members with email access over the past two weeks.

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