This article was updated at 8:03 p.m.
With a clear lack of unity as negotiations approach, WGA West leaders have given president Charles Holland the most tepid of endorsements.
In an extraordinary move, a divided WGA West board decided early Tuesday to retain Holland, backing him with a 10-6 “vote of confidence” despite questions about the veracity of his bio.
The WGA West also faces the embarrassment of a possible federal probe into how it conducted last summer’s election in which Victoria Riskin was re-elected over challenger Eric Hughes. Riskin stepped down Jan. 6 and was replaced by Holland after an outside investigator found her membership had lapsed last summer.
The WGA West board decided at the end of an eight-hour meeting that Holland should remain in the post despite potential credibility problems for as the WGA as it heads into bargaining with studios and nets. The pact expires May 2.
Holland apologized to the board for the controversy, stemming from possibly exaggerated statements he made in 2002 to the WGA West’s magazine about serving in the Army’s Special Forces and having received a college football scholarship in the 1980s. After questions arose two weeks ago about the statements, the WGA West removed the “Soldier of Fortune” story from its Web site.
Board member J.F. Lawton said, “Charles told us, ‘I should not have talked about it. It’s my mistake.'”
Holland made no comment Tuesday but is expected to address the 8,000 WGA West members about the controversy shortly.
His supporters believe any damage to the WGA’s image is trumped by the guild’s need for a strong leader with a solid professional background. Holland has a Harvard law degree, worked for Fox as a VP and has a career as a TV writer and showrunner. He was co-chief of the negotiating committee during the 2001 talks.
“The board took the accusations seriously,” the WGA West said. “A majority felt they should be weighed against Mr. Holland’s long and unbroken record of ethical and respected professional behavior. Ultimately, it was the prevailing view of the board that given Mr. Holland’s unique set of skills as an attorney and business affairs executive in combination with his writing background and years of service to the guild that he should remain as president.”
Lawton stressed that Holland did not attempt to sway the board’s decision.
“He would have gone along with whatever decision we made,” Lawton said, adding that the looming negotiations were a key factor in the debate.
The board also appointed former guild prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. to the VP slot that Holland vacated three weeks ago when Riskin resigned. Petrie was president for one term from 1997 to 1999 and has been VP twice — in 1995-97 and in 1999-2001.
Petrie said the board’s split vote on Holland’s fate was not a surprise. “The WGA is nothing if not about disagreements,” he added. “That’s the very nature of democracy,” he added.
Petrie said the controversy over Holland’s background wouldn’t undercut the WGA at the bargaining table. “I’ve worked alongside Charles and have formed a very high opinion about his integrity,” he added.
The board also denied requests for a new election and extensive procedural reforms from Hughes, who was recruited to run against Riskin, and Hughes’ campaign manager Ron Parker. As a result, the duo promised to take the complaint to the Dept. of Labor to investigate alleged violations of federal labor law.
Hughes and Parker asked specifically that the WGA West board open its meetings to a greater extent; publish its minutes; resume publication of a membership directory; create a committee to review the WGA West constitution and oversee the election. They also want the WGA West board to begin disciplinary proceedings against Riskin, her husband and board member David Rintels and producer Barry Kemp, stemming from their attempts last June to keep Riskin eligible by setting up a writing deal at Kemp’s shingle.
Independent investigator William Gould IV found that Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and screenwriter Robert Riskin, had not written anything after signing the deal with Kemp before her membership lapsed last June 30. WGAW execs have said the guild is in compliance with federal labor rules.
Parker told Daily Variety he was not surprised by the board’s refusal to pursue the reforms and disciplinary action.
“This protest has been about the fact that the guild is unclear on the concept of a union and is completely disengaged from its own members,” Parker said. “The membership will have to depend on the Dept. of Labor to enforce their rights.”
However, the board did vote Tuesday to create a new governance committee headed by Lawton, who endorsed Hughes during the election, with the charge to review election procedures and make recommendations to the board.
Lawton said he would make certain the committee was composed of members who don’t usually serve on such panels. And he noted that Gould’s Jan. 5 report to the board, which led to Riskin’s departure, found the WGA West had not violated federal labor laws.
“But Gould raised questions about fairness issues and Ron and Eric have raised some good points,” he added.
The guild negotiates as a joint entity via reps from the WGA West and WGA East. No date has been set yet for bargaining, and insiders expect SAG and AFTRA will begin negotiations first despite the later June 30 expiration of the actors’ contract.
The WGA West board also tapped Petrie, board member Irma Kalish and “Seabiscuit” producer-writer-director Gary Ross as members of the negotiating committee.