SAG taps spin doctors

Fabiani, Lehane hiring could further complicate election

SAG has hired high-profile political consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane — best known as the “Masters of Disaster” for former President Bill Clinton and VP Al Gore — to promote SAG’s tentative deal with the Assn. of Talent Agents.

SAG did not disclose how much it is paying the pair, who were hired on at $30,000 a month last year to serve as consultants to Gov. Gray Davis on California’s energy crisis. Lehane, Gore’s former press secretary, also achieved notice for comparing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to “a Soviet commissar” during the 2000 presidential recount.

The hiring has come more than a week before SAG’s national board is set to vote on the recent landmark agreement with the ATA under which talent agencies would be allowed to sell up to 20% of their shops to ad agencies and indie producers. If approved by the board, the three-year revamp of the guild’s master franchise agreement would then go to SAG’s 98,000 members.

SAG launched its first PR initiative Thursday with an announcement that the deal’s provisions could lead to 3,000 more guild jobs over five years, thanks to pledges of cooperation from agents in enforcing the ban on members’ performing non-union work overseas. Announcement represented a reversal for SAG staff, which had issued the press release about the agreement earlier this week and then pledged the guild would not campaign for the deal until after the March 11 board meeting.

SAG spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven said Thursday’s PR move came at the behest of the guild’s negotiating committee. “We believe it’s important to get this information out to members,” she added.

Kichaven also said Fabiani and Lehane were hired prior to last week’s conclusion of the ATA talks, partly to advise SAG if the negotiations had broken down. Davis came under fire last spring for hiring the pair to help the state respond to the energy crisis, which led to the governor blaming Texas energy companies and President Bush.

State Controller Kathleen Connell refused to pay Fabiani and Lehane for any of their work after it was disclosed that the duo had also advised Southern California Edison and received at least $10,000 each. Fabiani and Lehane subsequently agreed to forgo over $50,000 in state payments in order to settle a suit objecting to their hiring on the grounds of conflict of interest.

Election effect

The hiring of consultants and the PR campaign could further muddy the outlook for SAG’s bitter rerun election campaign, since the ATA deal has become the major issue for candidates. President Melissa Gilbert has strongly endorsed the pact and predicted it will pass, while rival Valerie Harper has slammed it as an unacceptable conflict of interest and warned that members will vote it down.

The rerun, which was ordered partly due to SAG staff violating election rules, will conclude March 8. SAG treasurer and Harper running mate Kent McCord blasted the hiring of consultants and the PR initiative.

“What SAG staff is doing is electioneering,” McCord said. “It’s reprehensible that they are using members’ dues money to influence both the election and the upcoming vote by the board.”

Kichaven said the most recent annual stats showed 52,000 jobs for SAG members, so the projected gain of 600 jobs per year would rep a 1.3% increase. She added that the figure of 3,000 additional jobs was a “conservative” estimate derived from pension and health contribution data, but McCord said the figure is meaningless.

“There is no way to determine that number accurately,” he contended.

Agents’ enforcement role

SAG noted that under the new agreement, agents will have the obligation to ascertain if a prospective employer is a signatory to a SAG agreement and then refrain from entering into any contract on an actor’s behalf until the employer has signed such an agreement.

“If the agent commits an actor to non-union work, the agent will forfeit any commissions resulting from that work and the actor will be subject to union discipline,” SAG said. “An agent who repeatedly violates these provisions will be subject to discipline by SAG.”

In another development, SAG CEO Robert Pisano issued a response to a letter from five former SAG presidents who criticized his ouster of government relations director Lance Simmens (Daily Variety, Feb. 28). “It’s my policy not to comment publicly on election-related matters or on internal personnel issues,” Pisano said. “I intend to reply privately to the authors of the letter after the election is completed.”

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