Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) on Friday called on the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to investigate allegations that pirated DVDs were being smuggled into Los Angeles by flight crews of the Russian airline Aeroflot.
Berman said the call was in response to a Los Angeles Times article on Sunday that detailed how a suspected bootlegger was allegedly assisted by Aeroflot employees.
The story chronicled animation distributor Joan Borsten's one-woman crusade to halt the sale of cheap, illegal versions of her company's DVDs in Russian stores throughout Los Angeles.
"I am very concerned about what appears to be a serious breach in customs enforcement at Los Angeles International Airport," Berman wrote in a letter this week to U.S. Customs Commissioner W. Ralph Basham. "I urge you to investigate this situation immediately."
Berman is the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, the Internet and intellectual property. Borsten has testified before the subcommittee.
"It is maddening and unacceptable that this piracy not only undercuts U.S. interests abroad, but is now directly harming markets right here in the U.S.," Berman said. "And, of even greater exigency, I am worried about the ease with which these airline employees might be able to smuggle other products, including drugs and weapons."
Aeroflot representatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the agency could not respond to the concerns in Berman's letter because it had not been received yet.
"We do take our role in enforcing intellectual property rights very seriously," she said.
Borsten, the co-owner of Films by Jove, a Malibu-based company that has the international distribution rights to a library of Russian animated films, recently filed an $11-million copyright-infringement suit against Dmitry Fayerman, accusing him of piracy.
Fayerman reached a confidential settlement with Borsten and closed his office. He says he was unaware she owned the U.S. rights to the films.
In an interview, Fayerman told The Times that flight crews from Aeroflot routinely supplied him with hundreds of DVDs from Russia.
"Everybody who wants DVDs imports from Aeroflot," Fayerman said.
A private detective hired by Borsten photographed Fayerman picking up two bags jammed with what were thought to be DVDs from a man who appeared to be part of an Aeroflot flight crew that had checked into a hotel near the Los Angeles International Airport, according to a court declaration.
A Russian merchant, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said in an interview that several Russian stores in Los Angeles had for years relied on Aeroflot flight attendants to ferry DVDs, CDs, books and other items from Moscow to Los Angeles. The attendants deal with middlemen who sell the merchandise to retailers.
To avoid suspicion, flight crews often divide up several hundred DVDs, which are stacked in spindles and declared as personal items, he said.
The attendants typically charge $4 to $6 per kilogram for transporting the merchandise, he said.
The store owner said it took him three years to find a coordinator in Moscow who could arrange for Aeroflot attendants to transport goods to Los Angeles. He said he stopped receiving DVD shipments from Moscow a year ago because it became too expensive.
In May 2005, an Aeroflot pilot in Toronto was charged with trying to smuggle a suitcase into Canada containing 200,000 pills that looked like Viagra and another anti-impotence drug. The drugs were suspected of being counterfeits intended for sale on the black market.