HFPA files counter-suit against ex-publicist

Filing challenges Russell lawsuit

The bitter legal battle between the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and its former publicist escalated again Monday as the org filed a countersuit against Michael Russell, charging him and his firm with breach of contract and fraud.

In his suit, filed just days before this year’s Golden Globe telecast, Russell charged that its members were engaged in a “payola” scheme in which their Golden Globe votes were essentially up for sale, while the org’s prexy, Philip Berk, looked the other way or sought to profit from his connection to such a lucrative franchise.

Russell’s contract with the HFPA was not renewed in February 2010.

“Without a shred of evidence, (Michael Russell Group) manufactured a fanciful take of Hollywood intrigue that harkens back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll radio, with its colorful reference to ‘payola,’?” the HFPA said in its suit. “Although defendants threatened this lawsuit for over six months and prepared a draft as early as May, 2010, they have never come forward with an iota of documentation that even infers, much less demonstrates, the acceptance of so-called perks in exchange for votes in nominating or awarding a particular film.”

As was the case with Russell’s suit, the HFPA’s countersuit, which names Russell and partner Stephen Locascio, also casts a host of accusations regarding unethical activity.

The org says the Michael Russell Group was dropped when the org found that MRG was profiting from business relationships they had made “solely from its connection to the HFPA and the Golden Globes,” against the policies of the org, leading to the HFPA board’s decision in early 2010 not to renew the contract of their longtime publicist.

Among other things, the HFPA claims that at the 2010 Globes they heard that Russell sought $10,000 from InStyle, a sponsor of the show, for one of his clients for the loan of furniture for placement in the presenters’ lounge. According to the suit, Berk and the HFPA’s secretary, Meher Tatna, arranged a meeting with Russell that was “recorded and transcribed,” but his response was “not satisfactory.”

A primary source of the dispute between Russell and the HFPA is over sponsor Chrysler’s placement of a car on the 2010 Globes red carpet that stars would sign to be auctioned off for relief funds for Haiti.

In his suit, Russell says that Berk “suddenly became opposed” to the involvement of Stars for a Cause, a charity for whom Russell also worked, “as (Berk) wanted to receive benefits directly from Chrysler, and Stars was only giving the proceeds from the charity campaign to charity and not to Berk.”

But in its countersuit, the HFPA says that it became wary of Stars and the lawyer who ran the org, George Braunstein, when the HFPA got wind of litigation in which the charity was accused of falsely promising access to stars. The 2009 suit by artist Joseph Nicolosi claimed that Stars and Locascio made grand plans for charitable and promo activities for his portraits of celebrities that never came to fruition.

The HFPA says that when it learned of the suit, it was concerned that the involvement of Stars “would reflect poorly on its reputation.” Nicolosi’s claims have either been settled or dismissed.

The HFPA also says that Berk “never intended to receive any funds earmarked for Haiti” for himself, and that he asked the HFPA membership to make a special donation of $100,000 to Haitian relief.

The org also says that it learned of other claims against Russell and his company, and even cite a police report “contending” that they were “guilty of wire fraud,” but prosecutors chose not to pursue the case. The HFPA did not cite details of the allegations, but brought it up in their suit because it showed that the “inference of ongoing and continuous impropriety reflected badly” on their org.

Timothy McGonigle, Russell’s attorney, said that he had not yet seen the suit. But the countersuit was not a surprise, as he has exchanged letters in recent weeks with the HFPA’s attorney, Joseph Campo. In one, McGonigle says that the idea that the HFPA was not aware of Russell’s involvement with Stars for a Cause is “laughable.” And he said that Berk “wanted to get rid of Stars and take all the credit for the Chrysler campaign, and engaged in a pattern of defamation to this end by touting these unfounded accusations.”

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