Cassel stirs up SAG politics again

Trial board found him guilty of conduct unbecoming

Seymour Cassel, often a lightning rod in SAG politics, has become the veritable eye of a Category 5 hurricane.

The embattled national board member, who narrowly lost the presidency to incumbent Alan Rosenberg in September 2007, is at the center of a political maelstrom that could affect the coming guild election. Ballots go out to members Tuesday, and accusations have been flying between members of the guild's two main factions, with each side accusing the other of using a new Cassel fracas to further their political agendas.

At the root of the conflict is the July 17 finding by a SAG trial board that Cassel is guilty of conduct unbecoming a member for sexually harassing three female SAG staff members. He was sentenced to a two-year suspension.

Cassel appealed the decision to a SAG national executive committee, which passed a motion Monday to postpone a ruling on the appeal until the national board could make a determination on a pair of constitutional articles that the exec committee said were in unprecedented conflict.

Cassel, a Hollywood Division member of the MembershipFirst party, is running for president as an independent against MembershipFirst's official candidate, Anne-Marie Johnson, the union's current 1st national vp. Those two candidates are competing against Ken Howard -- the official candidate for the Unite for Strength party -- and another independent, Asmar Muhammad.

MembershipFirst partisans are charging that resolution of the Cassel matter has been delayed so he will draw votes away from Johnson, while Unite for Strength standard-bearers claim that the MembershipFirst side pushed forward the actions against Cassel to clear the way for Johnson.

At issue is whether the timing of the women's charges was politically motivated, whether notifying Cassel of the charges was intentionally delayed until he had entered the race and whether the decision of the national exec committee to delay a ruling on the appeal was designed to keep Cassel in the race. Had the 22-member committee upheld the trial board's guilty decision Monday, Cassel would have been suspended and thus ineligible to run for the presidency.

Cassel pulled 10,921 votes, or 44%, in 2007 and could cut deeply into Johnson's support in the upcoming election. Critics of the committee's decision claim that Unite for Strength sympathizers on the committee from New York and the regional branches delayed the decision to keep Cassel in the race and damage Johnson's chances.

"Without question the motivation is that there are people in this union who want to keep Seymour Cassel in our presidential race so he can have a negative impact on Anne-Marie's campaign," Rosenberg said. "The fact is, they are using Seymour, and they're using these women for their own political gain."

"Oh, please!" said Richard Masur, a New York board member and former national president, who was in attendance at the meeting. "Yeah, there is a political agenda: It's Alan Rosenberg, Anne-Marie Johnson and MembershipFirst. This was all done in the timing in which it was done so they could get Seymour off the ballot so Anne-Marie would not have Seymour to deal with. That's the only political agenda."

Unite for Strength supporters claim the committee's decision to postpone the appeal ruling was based on its belief that only the national board could remove a board member like Cassel without undercutting the membership's wishes. But other sources maintain that guild legal counsel, including general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, who were present at the committee meeting, said there was no constitutional conflict.

"Though I won't comment on what happened, I will say that no one who supported the action that was taken acted out of any political motive," Masur said. "All the political motive seemed to be coming from the other side."

Additionally, Unite for Strength partisans note that MembershipFirst members on the committee could have knocked the trial board's punishment down to a fine, thus punishing Cassel for his actions but avoiding the board-removal issue. According to union rules, the committee "may modify the decision in any manner that it deems appropriate to ensure that it is reasonable."

In that scenario, Cassel would be eligible to run for the presidency, a result Unite for Strength partisans claim that MembershipFirst is trying to torpedo at all costs.

MembershipFirst, on the other hand, believes that the national board's input is necessary only if the maximum -- expulsion from the union -- is the proposed punishment for a board member, and that the matter should have been settled by the committee Monday.

An emergency national board meeting could be called at any time to address the issue, even before ballots are due, though they would incur some expense for the union. But if the matter remains unresolved until the next scheduled board meeting in October, and Cassel wins the election in the meantime, it would bring up a host of new pressures and procedures with regard to the conduct-unbecoming appeal and the union's leadership.

Cassel's history of provocative outbursts includes two highlights from this past year of SAG turmoil. In January, he made waves by erroneously telling reporters that the national board had removed then-chief negotiator Doug Allen from his post. Although Allen eventually was removed, no vote had taken place at the time of Cassel's leak.

Then, during a town hall meeting about TV/theatrical contract ratification, Cassel allegedly took his opportunity at the mike to call former SAG president Melissa Gilbert a noxious epithet, provoking the meeting chair -- who happened to be Johnson -- to ask him to leave the hall.

The 74-year-old actor, who scored an Oscar nomination for "Faces" in 1968 and lately has appeared in many of Wes Anderson's films, has been a SAG member since 1959. He first was elected to the union's board in 2001.

Complaints about Cassel's behavior have surfaced within the guild throughout the years, but the June charges were based on incidents that occurred during a May 21 informational meeting. According to the official "Notice of Charges," signed by deputy national executive director and Crabtree-Ireland, the three women claimed Cassel was intoxicated, used sexist language, told an inappropriate story involving Cheryl Tiegs' breasts, used the word "bitch," stung each of them on the ass with a rubber band and grabbed a lip gloss from one to put on and place lip marks on an informational placard.

Charges first were brought to Johnson as first vp and a member of the probable-cause committee, which formally heard the charges and referred them to the trial board. Because of this, she recused herself from the committee meeting, which Rosenberg chaired.

Meanwhile, Johnson is trying to organize a formal presidential debate for Aug. 27.