Probe Stirs Up Writers Guild

Report, expected today, on whether the union’s chief is eligible to hold office comes as contract talks are about to begin.

By Michael Cieply and James Bates
Times Staff Writers

January 5, 2004

The union representing Hollywood film and TV writers is bracing for the results today of an investigation into whether its president had done enough writing to be eligible to hold office when she was reelected in September.

The probe into the status of Victoria Riskin, head of the Writers Guild of America, West, threatens the stability of the union as it prepares for contract negotiations with studios in the next few weeks.

The investigator brought in by the WGA, William B. Gould IV of Stanford University, has notified the guild that he expected to deliver his recommendations this morning and was prepared to address the WGA’s 16-member board in the afternoon.

Riskin’s lawyer, Larry Feldman, said Riskin clearly was eligible to run based on the way the guild has long applied its rules.

To overturn her reelection now, he said, “would clearly be unreasonable and unfair” and would have “serious ramifications” for the contract talks.

As head of the WGA’s western division, Riskin represents more than 9,000 film and TV writers. First elected in 2001, Riskin won a second two-year term by defeating challenger Eric Hughes, 846 to 425. Fewer than 20% of eligible members voted.

Riskin has advocated taking a tough stance in contract talks on such issues as sharing studio riches generated by the DVD boom and bolstering the guild’s health-care plan. She also has been a vocal opponent of efforts to loosen Federal Communications Commission restrictions on media conglomerates.

Riskin, 58, grew up in entertainment. She is the daughter of Academy Award-winning writer Robert Riskin, whose credits include “It Happened One Night,” and actress Fay Wray, best known for starring in “King Kong.” Riskin is married to a longtime writer and guild activist, David Rintels.

At issue is whether Riskin’s writing inactivity should have disqualified her to hold office. To maintain active membership, writers must generate earnings from projects covered by the guild contract.

For the last two months, Gould a labor law expert and former head of the National Labor Relations Board has been conducting closed-door administrative hearings at the request of the WGA board, which acted on a formal protest lodged by member Ronald Parker.

Gould has been focusing on whether Riskin should have lost her active status three months before the election for not posting sufficient earnings in the previous four years.

When the subject was first raised by Hughes during the election, Riskin acknowledged that she had stopped writing for a while, adding that the demands of being president made it difficult for her to find the time. However, she added then, she had projects in the works.

According to transcripts of the administrative hearings and other documents obtained by The Times, Riskin scrambled to find qualifying work in the weeks before her active status was set to expire in June.

Riskin turned to friend Barry Kemp, a writer and producer who heads the Writers Guild Foundation. According to testimony by both Kemp and Riskin, Kemp agreed to quickly option a treatment based on Robert Riskin’s classic film “Magic Town” from Riskin and her husband, who had explored the project with his production company.

Though guild staff members took no steps to terminate Riskin’s active status, the transcripts show, they testified that the $3,895 option payment to her and Rintels wouldn’t normally have qualified a writer to continue as an active member. An option is a payment for the right to buy a work in the future.

Feldman said that in addition to the option, Riskin received an employment contract from Kemp that would extend her active status. He said the deal was legitimate.

“Barry Kemp testified that it wasn’t a sweetheart deal, and that he was interested in the project,” Feldman said. “He paid her and she did the work.”

Asked in November whether she had yet performed writing services that would qualify her for a larger payment from Kemp, Riskin testified: “Not I am bad. I haven’t finished those writing services.” She later testified that she completed the “Magic Town” assignment in December and received an additional $8,456 from Kemp.

Riskin acknowledged having filed a dues waiver request that entitled her, as a retiree, to stop paying the guild’s minimum $25 quarterly assessment in December 2000. However, she said, she instructed her accountant to continue paying the minimum despite the waiver.

According to a guild report, Riskin’s earnings as a writer since 1994 have totaled $385,500, including several payments from TV producers Hallmark Entertainment and MTM Enterprises, but have trailed off in recent years.

According to documents, Feldman demanded on Christmas Eve that Gould reopen the hearings because of Riskin’s dissatisfaction with statements by the guild’s outside attorney. Gould received additional testimony from Riskin and others in a hastily convened session at the union’s Los Angeles headquarters Dec. 30.

Parker, who filed the complaint that prompted the investigation, declined to comment.

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