Judge OKs Trial In Hollywood Cocaine Whistleblower Case

A nasty trial is set to begin over allegations that a top Hollywood effects artist was fired for complaining about a colleague's cocaine use. 

Next month in Los Angeles Superior Court, award-winning visual effects guru Andrew MacDonald will try to make the case that he was wrongfully terminated from Ascent Media Group after blowing the whistle on the drug habits of one of his superiors -- Alex Frisch, best known as the visual effects supervisor on the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

MacDonald alleges that in 2009, he raised concerns about the "open and notorious drug abuse at the office during working hours" of Frisch, and as a result was let go from the company. Now he's suing, and although a judge late last week threw out a couple of his claims, a trial is set to take place in September on MacDonald's key allegation of being fired after speaking up.

Reached for comment, Frisch says the allegations of coke abuse are all a "lie" and that MacDonald's accusations have been "very painful."

In the autumn of 2008, AMG merged the visual post production studio RIOT with Method Studios. MacDonald, who has won prizes for advertising work at the Clio Awards and at Cannes, was creative director at RIOT, while Frisch is said to have been the "face" of Method. Following the merger, Frisch appears to have emerged as top creative dog at the combined studio, named as director of creative visual effects at Method.

MacDonald wasn't happy at the development.

He says that at the time, he had multiple discussions about entering into a written employment contract with Method, and he alleges he came to an oral agreement that would have paid him $250,000 to be executive creative director, 2d, but during contract negotiations with AMG's president, he brought up his concerns about Frisch's alleged drug use and Frisch's ability to head the department.

According to the legal papers, Frisch's drug habits were known by others. At the office, other employees had purportedly nicknamed what was going on in the "Crinkle Club." Reportedly, Frisch was called "Power Donut Man" and "Cokey the Clown, Our Fearless Leader."

MacDonald says at the time he was told not to undermine Frisch as AMG had spent big money on the merger. Asked in March 2009 whether he had any actual proof of the drug use, MacDonald said he "was shocked, and jokingly asked whether [Marcel] Gandola [AMG's vp operations] needed him to video-tape the bathroom in order to prove that his concern was well-founded."

The following morning, MacDonald says he was terminated by AMG's lawyer for having actually videotaped the bathroom. (He says he never did and this was an excuse to let him go.)

MacDonald, now being represented by famed attorney Mark Geragos, says the defendants have "engaged in a cover-up of the illegal acts of Mr. Frisch" and have retaliated against him.

Six months after MacDonald was terminated, Frisch left the company. He's now co-founder of Copa Studios, where he is up for an award at the MTV Music Awards for work with Nicki Minaj. Meanwhile, the MacDonald case has continued.

Last Thursday, LA Superior Court judge Mary H. Strobel denied AMG's motion for a complete win on summary judgment.

In an attempt to escape MacDonald's allegations of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, AMG argued that health and safety laws don't prohibit conduct specific to the employer. The judge, though, pointed to allegations that on one occasion, Frisch was in an agitated state and booted a wastebasket across the room, and on another occasion he acted aggressively at a meeting.

The judge sees a triable issue over whether his termination violated public policy.

The judge also waived away objections of insufficient allegations connecting MacDonald's complaints and his firing. AMG said it had investigated the complaints, that MacDonald wasn't fired until months after his first complaint, that others who had voiced concerns weren't fired, and that MacDonald was offered a substantial contract. But the suspicious timing of the Gandola meeting was enough for the judge to throw it to a jury.

AMG was successful in getting Judge Strobel to throw out claims of wrongful termination based on the whistleblower statute and a claim of breach of oral contract.

Nevertheless, a five-day jury trial is scheduled to begin on September 4.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twiter: @eriqgardner