WASHINGTON — A media watchdog group is raising concerns about a senior Motion Picture Assn. of America staffer’s alleged involvement in antitrust violations.
The move comes just days before the Senate is set to confirm Jon Leibowitz, veep of congressional affairs at the MPAA, as a new Federal Trade Commission commissioner.
Leibowitz was expected to be a shoo-in for the FTC post, but his nomination is now being opposed by the Center for Digital Democracy.
The fears emerged after lawyers for Jonathan Taplin, CEO of online film distrib Intertainer, on Thursday sent subpoenas to Leibowitz and outgoing MPAA topper Jack Valenti.
The two are being asked to give depositions. Taplin’s lawyers want to question Valenti and Leibowitz for a case alleging that several movie studios — with the help of the MPAA — conspired to shut down Intertainer.
Warner Bros., Sony and Universal, three of the studios named in the $1.6 billion suit, are partners in MovieLink, a separate online video distribution business formed after Intertainer was up and running. Paramount and MGM are also MovieLink partners but are not named in the suit.
Leibowitz has been nominated to replace Mozelle Thompson as a commissioner at the FTC, and a Senate confirmation vote is set for Tuesday. So far, his nomination has attracted bipartisan support.
But the Center for Digital Democracy is working against his nomination, citing what they describe as several conflicts of interest including his alleged role in a plan to convince the Justice Dept. to shutter its investigation of antitrust violations involved in the creation of MovieLink. The DOJ ended that probe early last month.
MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor called the charges “political and legal nonsense” and noted that the trade org is not a party to the suit. He referred all questions to Williams and Connelly, the D.C. firm handling the legal matter for Valenti and Leibowitz.
The firm did not immediately return calls seeking comment and it was not clear if Valenti and Leibowitz received the subpoenas Thursday.
Jeff Chester, exec director for the Center for Digital Democracy and a vocal critic of big media and Bush administration media policy, said he contacted several members of Congress Thursday to object to Leibowitz’s nomination.
Opposition on principle
Chester said he relayed concerns about Leibowitz’s ability to handle antitrust activities considering the current accusations leveled against him by Taplin. Chester also objects to the nomination on more fundamental grounds: He opposes placing any senior MPAA exec on the staff of the agency in charge of regulat-ing the motion picture industry.
“Leibowitz shouldn’t be serving on the FTC — he should first be investigated by the FTC,” Chester charged.
Taplin, who produced “Mean Streets,” among other films, and is currently an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, sued the stu-dios and MovieLink after he shut down the U.S. operations of Intertainer. (Company still has operations abroad.)
Taplin said he filed suit only after building the online biz with the help of then-AOL Time Warner, Sony and Universal as shareholders.
Taplin contends the studios involved “gladly” supplied Intertainer with thousands of films, but on the day Intertainer deployed nationally, they cut off the film supply and began plans on their own competing service, MovieLink.
Taplin’s latest legal gambit is an attempt to find out whether Valenti and Leibowitz played a role in convincing the DOJ to end its MovieLink investigation.
According to Taplin, on Feb. 20, 2003, Valenti and Leibowitz took several senators on the Judiciary Committee, which also oversees the FTC and antitrust matters, out to Hollywood for a meeting with Warner Bros. prexy Barry Meyer and VP Chris Cookson, as well as MovieLink CEO Jim Ramo.
Taplin and his lawyer want to know if that meeting played any role in the DOJ’s decision to end the investigation.
Although the timing of the subpoenas appears politically motivated, Taplin said they were sent simply as a last resort to get information after months of re-quests for written materials and depositions from Valenti and Leibowitz.
So far, the MPAA has only provided one box of information.
“The four boxes that we really want are being held back,” Taplin told Daily Variety. “Williams and Connelly says (Valenti and Leibowitz) are not in-volved, yet they have five boxes’ worth of stuff having to do with MovieLink. Where’s the disconnect?”