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Video Maker Pleads Guilty

The case stems from the use of underage girls in soft-core `Girls Gone Wild' footage. The judge imposes a $500,000 fine.

September 26, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Joe Francis, the founder and chief executive of the "Girls Gone Wild" empire, pleaded guilty Monday to two felony counts of violating federal record-keeping laws by failing to document the ages of young women in his racy videos.

The pleas in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles were the result of an agreement announced this month between Francis and the Justice Department after an investigation into whether his Santa Monica companies filmed minors.

Francis agreed to personally pay a $500,000 fine to settle charges that he failed to keep records of the ages and identities of the women who appeared in his soft-core sex videos. Francis earlier this month acknowledged that footage of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct appeared in at least two DVDs he released.

Francis' Mantra Films Inc. pleaded guilty this month in Panama City, Fla., to 10 felony counts stemming from the same violations and agreed to pay $1.6 million in fines.

MRA Holdings Inc., another company owned by Francis, entered into a so-called deferred prosecution agreement under which the government would dismiss all charges if MRA abided by the accord for three years and hired an outside monitoring company.

The 33-year-old Francis spent about 30 minutes in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He stood before U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow with his hands tucked in his pockets, shifting from foot to foot, responding briskly to the judge's questions.

But when Morrow asked Francis if he understood that, given the felonies he was admitting to, he could be sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison, he seemed surprised. "Um, I don't understand that," he said. His lawyer, Aaron S. Dyer, stepped forward, explaining to him that it was not the sentence he would be receiving because of the agreement, but the maximum sentence allowed for the felonies. Under the agreement he will serve no jail time.

Francis admitted that "Girls Gone Wild' videos such as "Totally Exposed Uncensored and Beyond," Volumes 1-12, failed to comply with federal laws requiring producers not only to maintain proof of age and identification for performers but also to carry labels on videos saying where those documents can be found.

Francis' attorneys have said that his companies tightened business practices before the Justice Department launched its investigation, which focused on violations with material filmed and distributed throughout 2002 and part of 2003.

After the arraignment, Dyer reiterated to reporters that the charges were for record-keeping violations, not the intentional sexual exploitation of children.

Dyer said that the underage girls who had appeared in the videos, which feature young women exposing their breasts and engaging in other sexual activities, had lied about their age to the company. "No 17-year-old will ever be allowed to lie to Mantra films to appear on camera again," he said.

Francis, standing beside him, wearing a dark pinstripe suit and a pink tie, said he was happy to put the incident behind him. "It's all over and no one went to jail," he said with a smile.

claire.hoffman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Charles Duhigg contributed to this report.

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