Ex-Globes publicist files lawsuit against HFPA

Michael Russell files $2 million suit

A $2-million suit filed by the former publicist for the Golden Globes against the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. once again raises charges about the integrity of the voting process for one of show biz’s most successful awards franchises.

The org has dismissed the lawsuit, filed just days before its annual fete, as “no more than the case of a disgruntled former consulting firm, whose contract was not renewed, attempting to take advantage once again of the Globe’s international stage for their own gain.”

But Michael Russell, whose firm handled public relations for the show, accuses the HFPA of a “payola” scheme that could violate state law and threaten the org’s tax exempt status. He is joined as plaintiff by an another publicist with his firm, Stephen Locascio.

The suit claims that many HFPA members “abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements,” including accepting lavish vacations, junket lodging, gifts and other perks that were provided by studios and producers in exchange for support or votes in nominating or awarding a particular film. It also says that some members sell media credentials for profit, giving “low-profile or unknown ‘media’ entities” plum spots on the red carpet, and that some members accepted payment from studios and producers for “representing films and lobbying other HFPA members” for nominations and awards.

The suit says that “such policies and practices allow members to illegally profit from their association in the nonprofit corporation and violate federal communications law prohibiting ‘hidden’ payola schemes.” The suit does not name members or cite specific instances of such conduct.

Russell and Locascio say that they brought the “unethical and potentially illegal activities” to the attention of HFPA president Philip Berk, also named in the suit, who “expressly acknowledged to Russell that these activities were problematic and that HFPA was a corrupt organization.” Berk, the suit says, also refused to change its practices in limiting membership “because he and the HFPA were profiting from the existing arrangements.”

The suit claims that their contract was not renewed in 2010 to serve as the publicity team for the show, even though they were promised so by Berk.

Russell started work with the HFPA in 1993, and the suit credits him and his firm with making “significant progress” in repairing the credibility of the show, to the point where the Globes now command a license fee in excess of $12 million per year. The Globes did not have a broadcast network contract in 1993, as it was recovering from the infamous incident from the early 1980s in which Pia Zadora, then an unknown, won a new star of the year award after her husband wined and dined HFPA members. A controversy in the 1960s prompted NBC to drop its broadcast of the show, after an FCC investigation that raised red flags about its voting procedures.