The Justice Department on Thursday charged a North Hollywood wholesaler of adult films with violating federal obscenity laws, launching the first of what it promised would be a wave of criminal cases against purveyors of pornography.
The 10-count federal grand jury indictment against Extreme Associates and its executives, Robert Zicari and Janet Romano of Northridge, raised alarm among adult entertainment companies in the San Fernando Valley, which is considered the capital of the nation's multibillion-dollar pornography industry.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft promised upon taking office that he would crack down on the distributors of adult entertainment material such as movies, magazines and Web sites, much as his Reagan administration predecessor Edwin Meese III did in the 1980s.
With the government's antitrust trial against Microsoft Corp. completed and the war on terrorism well underway, Thursday's charges suggest pornography has moved closer to the center of Ashcroft's radar.
"Today's indictment marks an important step in the Department of Justice's strategy for attacking the proliferation of adult obscenity," Ashcroft said.
The department, he said, will "continue to focus our efforts on targeted obscenity prosecutions that will deter others from producing and distributing obscene material."
Executives at Extreme Associates did not return calls Thursday, but one industry official said adult entertainment businesses were preparing for a fight.
"This is just another form of harassment by the government," said William Lyon, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a Canoga Park-based trade group for the adult entertainment industry. The government will "try to get convictions on the edges of this industry, and we will fight them all the way."
Thursday's indictment came after investigators with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service set up a sting operation in Pennsylvania. From September 2002 through July 2003, the indictment says, the defendants sold allegedly obscene material over the Internet and distributed videotapes and DVDs across state lines through the postal system, a violation of federal law.
Extreme Associates produces movies such as "Extreme Teen #24" and "Forced Entry -- Directors Cut," which depict the fictional rapes and murders of several women, according to court documents.
The sting came in conjunction with an obscenity investigation conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department as well as complaints sent to the Justice Department in western Pennsylvania, said U.S. Atty. Mary Beth Buchanan.
"If a company is wanting to take advantage of the Internet for marketing and distribution purposes, it's their responsibility to make sure they're not violating local laws," Buchanan said. "If their conduct is not legal, it's up to them to take a firm stance not to operate there."
Extreme Associates, a relatively small player in triple X-rated entertainment, has garnered both financial success and public attention in the last several years for its line of hyper-aggressive adult films.
The privately held company employs 15 people and has annual sales of $20 million to $49.9 million, according to the U.S. Business Directory.
Extreme's offices were searched in April under a federal search warrant. The unsealed warrant shows that federal and postal investigators seized copies of five different movies as well as sales records, distribution invoices and an array of other business documents.
On the company's Web site, which Thursday featured an American flag waving in the breeze, Zicari posted a statement that said no one had been arrested and that the company remained in business. He vowed to fight the government and wrote, "I definitely will not sit here and cry a bunch of tears."
He went on to name the five allegedly obscene films and, in an act of defiance, announced that the company was selling what he called "The Federal Five" tapes at a discount on the firm's Web site.
Zicari and Romano are scheduled to be arraigned in Pittsburgh on Aug. 27.
If convicted, Zicari, 29, also known as Rob Black, and Romano, 26, also known as Lizzie Borden, each could face as much as 50 years in prison and a fine of $2.5 million. The company could pay a fine of as much as $5 million.
The case is a flashback to the war on pornography that the government waged in the 1980s, which shut down dozens of production companies and sent executives to prison for distributing raunchy fare.
Meese's Commission on Pornography linked sexually violent materials with "antisocial acts of sexual violence" and attempted to draw ties between extreme sex entertainment and child molestation.
The commission's 2,000-page report set off an unprecedented flood of anti-porn sentiment and legislation that landed several high-profile porn executives in prison -- including Russell Hampshire, head of the video manufacturing company VCA Labs Inc. In 1988, he served nine months for shipping obscene videotapes across state lines to federal agents in Alabama.