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Writers Guild Chief Resigns Under Pressure

Victoria Riskin steps down as controversy grows over her eligibility for office.

January 07, 2004|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Victoria Riskin resigned as president of the Writers Guild of America's Western division Tuesday, saying she wanted to end a controversy over her membership qualifications before it affected upcoming contract negotiations with studios.

Her resignation, a first for the guild, was an ill-timed embarrassment: Contract talks are expected to start soon over such high-stakes issues as sharing in studio DVD revenue and strengthening the union's health plan.

Riskin's formal announcement followed a tense, 13-hour board meeting that ended at 4:30 a.m. Just after midnight, Riskin told directors she would leave, heading off what was likely to be a bruising fight.

"Vicki did the right thing in agreeing to step down," board member J.F. Lawton said. "She made the decision for us. If she had made the decision to fight, it would have hurt the guild. It would have been very painful to remove her."

Riskin is succeeded by Vice President Charles Holland in representing about 9,000 television and film writers, most of whom live in Southern California. Holland said in a statement that he assumed the post "with a heavy heart yet strong determination."

A guild veteran and experienced negotiator, Holland is the first African American to lead the union. He is a former studio business affairs executive who has written for such shows as "JAG" and co-chaired the guild's negotiations committee during the last bargaining round in 2001.

"It's in very capable hands," said writer and producer John Wells, a former guild president.

Riskin quit after a report commissioned by the board from Stanford law professor William B. Gould IV recommended she be replaced immediately. Gould concluded that Riskin's writing inactivity disqualified her to run for reelection in September because she had let her status as a current member lapse in June.

Riskin said in an interview that she followed procedures laid out for her by guild officials. But, she said, "I didn't want this to be about me even though it is about me. I wanted to step aside so the guild could go on and do its work."

Designed to counter criticism in the 1980s that nonworking writers overly influenced the guild, the rules require that candidates be current in their membership for 12 continuous months leading up to an election.

Riskin maintained that a hastily arranged writing deal with producer Barry Kemp should have extended her membership.

But Gould found that Riskin did not meet the union's requirement that she receive money from the assignment before June 30 and pay dues on it.

Riskin's resignation is a victory for writers Eric Hughes, who lost to Riskin in September, and Ronald Parker, who advised Hughes on his campaign and who filed the formal challenge to her reelection. Hughes and Parker allege that Riskin's writing deal was a sham arrangement aimed solely at allowing her to run for reelection. Gould found that the deal was legitimate but nonetheless failed to qualify her as a candidate.

"The protest was about guild policies and procedures that are not only questionable in themselves but are not equally applied," Parker said. He added that he filed the protest to counter long-running "behind-the-scenes" behavior at the guild "and on behalf of all of the disenfranchised members who were not even aware of how and why they had become disenfranchised."

Riskin's lawyer, Larry Feldman, blasted the guild board, saying it caved in before Parker's threats to take the issue to the U.S. Labor Department if Riskin wasn't removed.

"They chose to jump ship and abandon her," Feldman said. "They don't deserve Vicki Riskin as their leader. They were cowardly."

Responding, Lawton said: "The membership status of elected officers is a very serious matter. We had to treat it as a serious matter. Ultimately, it was Vicki's decision to leave."

Referring to Parker, Feldman said the guild was "hijacked by one dissident member." He noted that Parker once had an arbitration dispute with the guild involving Riskin's husband, David Rintels, in which Parker was denied screen credit on a rewrite of Rintels' work on the TNT miniseries "Nuremberg."

Parker denied that the arbitration influenced him, adding that his efforts were for the good of the guild and about the integrity of the September election.

"It isn't about me," Parker said. "I find it offensive and stupid to attack my motivations."

Parker is a 30-year veteran of the industry who has written such TV films as "Joan of Arc" and an upcoming miniseries for director Wolfgang Petersen.

Riskin is the daughter of the late Oscar-winning writer Robert Riskin and actress Fay Wray. Her writing credits include the TV movie "My Antonia."

As guild president, Riskin was active in criticizing efforts to loosen Federal Communications Commission regulations on media conglomerates, arguing that it would lead to fewer choices.

Even Riskin fans, such as past guild Presidents Wells and Dan Petrie Jr., said her departure was inevitable and that she ultimately made the right choice.

"She worked very hard for the guild," Petrie said. "But what our constitution says and what our past practices have been are very clear."

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