A federal grand jury is reportedly investigating charges that George Christy, longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, defrauded the health and pension fund of the Screen Actors Guild.
Christy's twice-weekly column "The Great Life," which has appeared in the paper since 1975, was suspended indefinitely last Friday amid controversies engendered by a SAG "audit inspection" of him and an internal investigation by the Reporter of various accusations that Christy had behaved unethically.
A federal law enforcement source said Assistant U.S. Atty. David Seide had been assigned to the case, but Seide said that as a matter of policy, he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any grand jury investigation. Nor would he comment on whether any grand jury investigation would go beyond Christy. Spokesmen for the Screen Actors Guild-Producers Pension & Health Plans had told The Times last month that the fund looks into about 150 possible fraud cases annually.
A spokeswoman for the Hollywood Reporter, Lynda Miller, said she first heard about a grand jury investigation when questioned about it by a reporter for Inside.com on Thursday afternoon, and "We are looking to confirm this report." Christy, who has previously denied any illegal or inappropriate behavior, was not available for comment Thursday.
Inside.com, which broke the story of the purported grand jury probe, attributed its information to "sources familiar with the investigation." The story said the grand jury is "looking into possible violations of federal laws, such as those that govern union pension and health plans." It said a grand jury subpoena has been served on the SAG health and pension fund seeking "documentation that might show a pattern of fraud by Christy and various film companies that hired him to be in their movies."
The Inside.com story was written by David Robb and Andrew Hines. Robb, a longtime labor and legal affairs reporter who first wrote about Christy and the SAG pension fund in 1993, quit the Reporter in late April when the paper refused to publish his story on the current SAG investigation and other questionable activities by Christy. Robb subsequently went to work for Inside.com, which posted an expanded version of his Christy story. The SAG pension and health fund is investigating whether Christy participated in a "sham employment scheme"--whether he actually acted in several films for which he was paid. Those payments made him eligible for benefits from the SAG fund.
The inquiry is the third time in a decade that Christy's eligibility has been questioned by the fund. In 1993, a civil lawsuit was settled, and in 1998 a similar "audit inspection" ended with the fund disallowing a $5,000 credit to his health and pension account.
Christy has long been controversial in Hollywood, where he has been widely accused of accepting many costly gifts, demanding multiple souvenir bags at premieres, mistreating studio publicists and demanding that studios provide limousines to take him to and from premieres. For many years, he also required studio publicists--or anyone else--who wanted a picture in his column to hire and pay a photographer of his choice.
At the urging of then-editor Anita Busch, Robert Dowling, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, ended the latter practice early last year. Busch urged Dowling to take other actions against Christy, but he did not do so, and when Dowling criticized Robb's journalistic ethics after refusing to publish his story in April, Busch and Beth Laski, the paper's film editor, quit in protest.
The Reporter subsequently published a brief article on the SAG investigation.