With the three-month strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) now over, the 12,000-member film and television writers’ union can concentrate on less pressing matters. On at least one of them it can expect government help. The U.S. Justice Department announced on February 28 that an information count had been filed against a former union assistant administrator and an associate for embezzling from a fund to pay guild members for works sold, distributed and aired in other countries. Prosecutors allege the ex-official, Michelle Trinh, 28, had set up an accomplice, Tracey Howze, 45, as a guild member or heir so that the latter could receive three checks totaling $17,228. Each was charged with conspiracy and has agreed to plead guilty.
The case began a year ago with a routine internal review. The WGA discovered funds were missing. The union eventually identified Trinh as the culprit, fired her, and referred the case to the U.S. Department of Labor. The DOL concluded the two women had conspired to falsify the union database so that checks would be issued to Howze from foreign-imposed levies held in trust for disbursement to members and their estates. The department then referred the case to the Justice Department. The union noted that all losses have been covered by insurance.
The case is related to a larger ongoing dispute within the WGA. Union Corruption Update last year reported on a simmering dispute over the distribution of levies collected by foreign governments to compensate copyright holders for reuse. The exactions, which typically take the form of taxes on video sales and rentals, have been the focus of a lawsuit filed in 2005 against the WGA and the Directors Guild of America by four parties, none a member of either guild, charging they had been cheated out of royalties. Last April, U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow granted a motion by the plaintiffs to move the case out of federal court and back to state court. The guilds, she concluded, had limited the rights of the plaintiffs. The original suits had been filed in state court and were consolidated as a class action. Though the ruling was procedural, it suggests that if the plaintiffs eventually win, theft-minded WGA office employees will have a smaller pool of funds from which to steal. (Variety, 4/20/07; 2/29/08).