‘Producer Gets Access,’ by Dana Rohrabacher

Share via
Times Staff Writers

U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) used his influence to open doors in Washington for a Hollywood producer pitching a television show after the producer paid him a $23,000 option on a screenplay, records and interviews show.

Before the option deal in late 2003, Rohrabacher’s script, “Baja,” had kicked around Hollywood for so many years that its conservative protagonist had morphed from a Vietnam veteran to a soldier who had served in the Persian Gulf War.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 30, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Producer access -- A Nov. 4 article in Section A about U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) helping a Hollywood producer gain access in Washington quoted Rohrabacher as saying that he might have made a technical error in not disclosing a contract with a producer for a screenplay through which Rohrabacher could have received additional payments. After reviewing instructions for completing the financial disclosure form required of all members of the House of Representatives, Rohrabacher now says he does not believe he was required to disclose the contract.

The action-adventure tale, penned by the conservative Orange County congressman almost 30 years ago, revolved around an archeological expedition to Mexico by the vet and his antagonist, a liberal graduate student.


Following the sale of the script to Joseph Medawar, a little-known producer, Rohrabacher helped introduce Medawar to at least five Republican congressmen and staff members at the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee in 2004. At the time, Medawar was pitching his latest Hollywood project -- a TV series about the Department of Homeland Security.

One of those congressmen was former Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), then chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Rohrabacher said he also made calls that helped Medawar and his crew gain access to officials in federal law enforcement agencies who briefed them on the inner workings of the federal government.

Records and interviews show Medawar repeatedly trumpeted his access to Washington big-shots when discussing his project with journalists and selling it to potential investors in his company, Steeple Enterprises.

Spokesmen at two nonpartisan watchdog groups in Washington said Rohrabacher may have crossed an ethical line when he helped the producer set up meetings with congressmen and government officials after accepting money for the screenplay.

Federal authorities now allege that Medawar’s television project was at the heart of an elaborate swindle in which Medawar defrauded dozens of people -- many of them Orange County and South Los Angeles churchgoers -- by selling $5.5 million of stock in Steeple.

Medawar, arrested last month, has pleaded not guilty to a 23-count indictment. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.


Rohrabacher said Thursday in an interview that he had done nothing improper by accepting the option payment from Medawar before introducing him to congressmen and Homeland Security officials.

“Frankly, had Medawar not had this meltdown and not been able to fulfill his obligations on his Homeland Security project, there would have been no question about this at all,” Rohrabacher said.

House ethics rules allow members of Congress to receive outside payments for works of fiction, poetry, lyrics or scripts as long as the payment is not offered because of the lawmaker’s congressional status.

Bill Allison, editor at large for the Center for Public Integrity, said that although laws might not have been broken, the $23,000 payment “certainly sounds like a quid pro quo.”

Rohrabacher denied any such arrangement. “There was no quid pro quo,” he said.

Rohrabacher said Medawar had first seen the script years ago. He broached the idea of optioning it in 2003 when the two were discussing Medawar’s plans for the Homeland Security series.

“He indicated that he wanted to use the same production crew [on the television show] to make at least one feature film a year that was pro-American,” Rohrabacher said Thursday. “He remembered ‘Baja’ and said that would be a good one for us to do. And I said, ‘Fine. I have put a lot of work into that.’ ”


Rohrabacher said the idea that there might be a perceived conflict in accepting payment for the script and then providing Medawar with access “didn’t even cross my mind.”

He said he made it clear to Medawar that he could not help him profit from the government, and that he did nothing more for the producer than he has done countless times before for members of the public and other Hollywood types. Most recently, he said, he provided a daylong Washington insider’s tour to actor Liam Neeson for a movie about President Lincoln.

Rohrabacher said that in December 2003, before accepting any money from Medawar, he wrote a letter to the House Ethics Committee inquiring whether the deal would violate House rules.

The committee wrote back a month later, he said, and cleared the transaction, noting that Medawar’s company “has not informed [you] of any legislative interests they might have before Congress.”

Rohrabacher said he made no mention in his letter about helping introduce Medawar to congressmen and officials in Washington because he thought it was irrelevant.

Rohrabacher reported the $23,000 payment from Medawar in his 2004 financial disclosure statement. He did not disclose on the House ethics form that he had “a reportable outside arrangement or agreement” with Medawar.


His contract with the producer called for Rohrabacher to receive a total payment of $125,000 if his script was made into a movie, plus 1% of gross revenue in the first five years after domestic release.

Rohrabacher said he did not think disclosing the contract was necessary because he had already vetted the matter with the Ethics Committee staff. He conceded that failing to do so might constitute a “technical” violation. Calls to the House Ethics Committee press office were not returned Thursday.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Rohrabacher’s actions appeared to represent an “outright” conflict of interest. She said further inquiry into Rohrabacher’s actions by the House Ethics Committee was warranted.

“The question is did [Rohrabacher] get $23,000 for the script or was he really getting the money for the introductions,” she said. “And the only way to know that is through an investigation.”

Allison, of the Center for Public Integrity, said Rohrabacher’s arrangement with Medawar created at least the appearance of a conflict.

“It sounds like he got something and gave something in return,” Allison said. “I know for most people $23,000 is a huge amount of money to get in one lump sum. It sounds like the payment certainly didn’t hurt the filmmaker’s chances of getting some help with his other projects.”


After Medawar was arrested last month by FBI and IRS agents for alleged fraud, Rohrabacher said he had agreed to introduce Medawar around Washington because he believed in the producer’s idea of a television drama on the Homeland Security Department. Rohrabacher said he also briefly introduced Medawar to First Lady Laura Bush last year at a GOP fundraiser in Orange County.

Rohrabacher has said he personally met with Medawar several times about the series, including once at a Santa Monica studio and another occasion about two years ago when Medawar brought a script writer to Rohrabacher’s home in Huntington Beach. Rohrabacher said his creative input included proposing that Medawar recruit actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. for the pilot. Zimbalist starred in a 1970s television series about the FBI.

Rohrabacher cut his political teeth as a speechwriter for President Reagan and sold an earlier script, about a World War II romance, to a Hollywood producer. Rohrabacher said Thursday that he was still uncertain whether Medawar was a swindler or simply in over his head.

“If he is found guilty of fraud I will seriously think of giving that option money back to some of the people who were defrauded,” Rohrabacher said. “But if he was only someone who was flamboyant and incompetent ... I will not feel compelled to take a strong look at giving back the money.”