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Anti-SAG-AFTRA Lawsuit Raises Many Issues, Targets Union Leadership (Analysis)

The suit filed by former SAG president Ed Asner and others bears down on the union’s top two staffers -- and comes just after the start of the SAG-AFTRA election process.

SAG AFTRA One Union Logo - H 2012

A recent lawsuit filed against SAG-AFTRA by disgruntled members is structured as a direct attack on national executive director David White and chief administrative officer and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, according to a copy of the suit obtained by The Hollywood Reporter

“The instant action was filed because SAG-AFTRA has resisted all efforts to obtain accountability and transparency in Union finances,” the plaintiffs' attorney Helena Sunny Wise told THR in an email. In that context, White and/or Crabtree-Ireland are portrayed as motivating forces behind an array of alleged improper practices relating to foreign royalties and residuals and are mentioned 49 times in the 52-page page document.

“To put it mildly,” Wise said, “inquiring minds want to know.”

“SAG-AFTRA is a very transparent organization,” Crabtree-Ireland responded in an email. “Public annual reports with extreme detail running to hundreds of pages are filed with the Department of Labor and the IRS and are available online to all. [In addition], the union has provided comprehensive information in related class-action litigation [filed by Ken Osmond] that resulted in a [judicially approved] settlement.”

He added, “The plaintiffs -- self-designated and not elected by anyone -- have nonetheless been offered access to review requested information, which they have declined to exercise. Instead, five months (later), the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit.”

Some cited grievances against White and Crabtree-Ireland date back to 2002, when White was general counsel of the organization under the leadership of then-national executive director Robert Pisano, and Crabtree-Ireland was on the legal staff.

White and Crabtree-Ireland are not named as defendants in the suit, but they probably will be: The complaint (read it in full here), filed on behalf of former SAG president Ed Asner and others, seeks court permission to add “the appropriate offending officers, employees, agents, Consultants, and representatives of SAG-AFTRA” as defendants.

The sheer length of the complaint and breadth of its assertions all but guarantee a lengthy and expensive litigation process. For that reason, THR is presenting an extended analysis of the complaint and SAG-AFTRA’s response. Although many readers will find the detail mind-numbing, those who are concerned about the matters discussed will, we hope, welcome the in-depth examination.

The thrust of the complaint is that the union has operated its foreign royalties program incompetently and in a manner designed to improperly funnel money into the union's general fund.

Crabtree-Ireland responded that this contention had already been raised in the prior Osmond case and said, “The whole reason for the existence of the foreign royalties program is to collect money and get it in the hands of our members, and SAG-AFTRA and SAG have done exactly that.” He added, “More than $15 million has been distributed so far to performers, and if the union hadn’t claimed those funds when we did, they would have been lost to our members forever due to foreign-collecting-society claim deadlines.”

The complaint also accuses the union of acting to “solidify and whitewash the collection, disbursement and retention of Foreign Royalties and Residuals.”

“Once accountability and transparency is achieved,” Wise said, “Plaintiffs will pursue all avenues for relief envisioned by Congress, the Department of Labor and the Judiciary, including, if appropriate, a housecleaning, reimbursement of inappropriate expenditures, and criminal sanctions.”

“The claim that the union is not being transparent is patently false,” Crabtree-Ireland fired back. “The fact that (the plaintiffs) ignored the opportunity to meet and instead simply filed a lawsuit demonstrates that they are not really interested in transparency, but rather appear to be interested in filing unnecessary litigation.”

The suit asks for an accounting, examination of books and records, injunctions, damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees and expenses and “establishment of an independent body to collect and pay all Foreign Royalties subject to Court supervision.”

The practices complained of in the litigation include issues related to last year’s union merger, union endorsement of residuals checks, delays in residuals processing, alleged failure to locate easily locatable residuals recipients and more.