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Movie Execs Charged in Money-Laundering Case

Federal prosecutors say Limelight Films was a front in international drug smuggling.

July 20, 2006|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Limelight Films seemed from the outside like so many upstart production companies in Hollywood: It had a Sunset Boulevard address, a connection to Tinseltown royalty and deals to distribute a small slate of low-budget films.

But federal authorities have alleged that the film corporation was a front for an international drug-smuggling and money-laundering operation stretching from Los Angeles to Switzerland.

Limelight Chief Executive Bruno D'Esclavelles of Los Angeles and Alexandre De Basseville, an executive in a Swiss financial firm that owned the film company, were among seven men arrested June 1 as part of a two-year federal investigation dubbed "Operation Director's Cut."

D'Esclavelles and De Basseville were arrested in Arlington, Va., and charged with conspiracy to distribute Ecstasy.

Authorities said they learned about Limelight from an informant and set up a sting operation in which agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posed as Ecstasy buyers working for South American drug dealers.

The criminal complaint alleges that Limelight executives laundered $300,000 through the film company for the undercover agents. The arrests followed numerous meetings between the agents and Limelight executives, who allegedly promised to arrange the sale of half a million Ecstasy tablets, according to court documents.

Neither D'Esclavelles nor De Basseville could be reached Wednesday for comment, and the number listed for Limelight's West Hollywood offices was disconnected.

Limelight's officials described their company in news releases as being at "the forefront of every aspect of the entertainment industry, from feature films to television, commercials, music videos, and broadcasting." The company was created out of "a desire to promote worldwide talented individuals who treasure cinema and cherish the creative spirit of Charlie Chaplin."

But Limelight's creative output has been modest, consisting of a handful of documentaries such as "The Letter: An American Town," "Somali Invasion" and the feature "The Gun."

Actress and model Kiera Chaplin, 23, the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, serves as president of the company. Chaplin, who was once engaged to De Basseville, has not been charged with a crime. But that hasn't stopped British tabloid newspapers from using the case as headline fodder for weeks.

The Sunday Mirror in London reported earlier this month that "the sexy granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin has sensationally scrapped plans to marry her mega-rich fiance after he was arrested on suspicion of drug dealing."

De Basseville has often been photographed with Chaplin on the red carpets of Hollywood events.

Limelight's Chief Financial Officer David Liberman was charged with conspiracy to launder money. Also charged were Thomas Frischknecht, 26, of Switzerland, and Fabian Pruvot, 37, Andre Prikazhikov, 31, and Brian Delansky, 33, all of Los Angeles.

According to federal court documents, investigators first learned about De Basseville two years ago from an informant who told the Internal Revenue Service that De Basseville had made global investments with money laundered through Swiss banks and businesses.

The undercover agents said De Basseville told them that movies could be used to launder the money.

"He stated that the dirty money goes into the movie project and comes back clean," wrote drug enforcement Special Agent James Williamson in a report contained in the court filing.

The agents met with De Basseville and several of his associates, including those charged, in Los Angeles, Miami, Virginia, Amsterdam and Geneva.

Authorities alleged that the men also promised the undercover agents that they could obtain thousands of weapons, including AK47 rifles, from Russia.

"This could be the script of a Hollywood movie," said James Trump, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the case in northern Virginia.

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