More than a dozen members of SAG-AFTRA — including former SAG president Ed Asner — have accused the actors union of misconduct in its handling of foreign levies and residuals they are owed.
The union has already strongly denied the allegations and reiterated its insistence that it has done nothing wrong in how it handled the funds — which began to flow two decades ago as compensation for reuse, such as taxes on video rentals, cable retransmissions and purchases of blank videocassettes and DVDs.
The allegations are contained in a “demand for accountability” letter served on the union on Thursday with an Oct. 2 deadline for response. The letter seeks a “full and complete accounting” on foreign royalties and residuals, asserting that more than $100 million is currently held in trust for members.
“As SAG-AFTRA publicly joined in the festivities honoring Labor Day, we the undersigned were quite mindful that tens of thousands of U.S. actors have had their residuals and foreign levies withheld if not converted unlawfully by SAG and AFTRA for well in excess of a decade,” said the Sept. 11 letter.
At issue is how SAG-AFTRA, which was created in March from the merger of SAG and AFTRA, accounts for and distributes funds it receives from foreign collecting societies.
In 2010, SAG settled a 2007 class-action suit by Ken Osmond, who alleged that the guild lacked the authority to collect the funds and had mishandled them.
The Sept. 11 letter was signed by members who had either opted out of the settlement or had not been notified including former board members Steve Barr, Clancy Brown and George Coe along with Tom Bower, Terrence Beasor, Dennis Hayden, Alex McArthur, Ed O’Ross, William Richert and Eric Hughes. Richert (“Winter Kills”) filed a similar suit against the Writers Guild of America in 2005 and settled last year, and Hughes consulted on the suit.
The letter accused SAG officials of improperly withholding funds, failing to account for the funds and failing to give appropriate notice in the Osmond suit.
“We are the real owners of foreign levies and are entitled to a full accounting of all transactions involving our property,” the letter stated.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel for SAG-AFTRA, denied the assertions and noted PricewaterhouseCoopers audits the union’s distribution of the funds — which total $14.2 million since 2007 with $7.4 million to distribute.
“These claims are baseless and false,” he said. “SAG-AFTRA’s foreign royalties program has been tremendously successful. We put significant time and energy into creating an automated system to track and speed up payment of the foreign royalties we collect on behalf of performers. The system is more efficient than ever.”
He also said SAG mailed out at least 70,000 notices to members about the settlement of the case. Crabtree-Ireland asserted that the funds would not have been collected had SAG not pursued them.
“The court decided the settlement was fair and appropriate, so I don’t know what more anyone can expect,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “If we hadn’t gone and collected the money, the money would have been lost to our members forever.”
In a ruling last month, a judge found the Directors Guild of America was in line with its 2008 foreign levies class-action settlement, and there was no cause to modify it — over strenuous objections that the DGA has been stonewalling over how it handles millions in funds.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Wiley declared repeatedly during an hourlong hearing that his role precluded him from revising the settlement and denied the motion “with prejudice” — meaning he will not entertain another request.
The DGA said last month that it has distributed more than $121 million in foreign levies, including over $13 million to more than 3,400 non-members.
The WGA reported earlier this year that it had collected nearly $130 million in foreign levies over the past two decades and distributed $104 million of those funds.