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Talent agency lawsuit gets personal

ICM agents take the stand to testify against Richard Abate, who is trying to jump to Endeavor.

March 28, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Both sides in the brutal courtroom clash between literary agent Richard Abate and ICM were licking their wounds Tuesday, following an embarrassingly public legal battle over Abate's attempt to bolt ICM and jump to the rival Endeavor Talent Agency. A federal judge is expected to rule this week on ICM's move to block Abate's departure.

During a concluding hearing Monday, both sides accused each other of corrupt motives and both sides were criticized by U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure for making less-than-stellar arguments. ICM, which brought the action earlier this month, is seeking to bar Abate from doing any work or recruiting new clients for Endeavor until his original contract ends later this year.

In the legal wrangling, ICM attempted to paint Abate as a dishonest, opportunistic agent who was envious of a colleague's promotion and knowingly violated his contract. His attorneys, in turn, argued that ICM was a financially stressed company that was panicking over its pattern of losing top agents to its rivals.

Abate, who spurned an ICM offer to renew his contract in February, testified that he had grown disenchanted with the large, bicoastal talent agency. He said he had approached the rival Endeavor agency to see if it was interested in beginning a New York book division, but insisted he had every intention of honoring his contract with ICM until it expired.

On several occasions, however, Abate could not remember key details about his job-hunting discussions on the West Coast. This drew an exasperated response from Leisure, who said, "Your lack of memory [over details] 30 to 60 days ago disturbs me. You have to be candid. You're wasting my time. You're hurting your own position."

But the judge also told ICM it had failed to prove that Abate's departure would cause the agency irreparable harm -- that the agent had pirated away key contacts, inside information about book deals and a raft of high-priced literary clients.

"You're not even close to showing a basis for a preliminary injunction," he told ICM's attorneys. "There's going to be a lot of money spent on this litigation once we're through ... [but] I don't think it's likely that a preliminary injunction will issue."

From that point on, both sides began attacking each other.

Abate said repeatedly that he had not stolen any high-priced secrets from ICM. He said he had been fired on Feb. 9 for having the temerity to turn down the agency's three-year extension of his contract. The real reason his former bosses were suing him, he alleged, is because of a "desperation on their part, that ICM has had a brain drain for the last 10 years," during which a series of powerful agents have left the company.

He added that he was "extremely concerned about the company's finances," and noted that a colleague had recently asked him why ICM -- which recently located its offices in midtown Manhattan -- had moved to such "a low-rent neighborhood." He charged that the case had not been settled out of court because "the L.A. office [of ICM] is in an acrimonious war with Endeavor, and they chose to sue me in a vindictive manner because they could not get enough money out of Endeavor."

Firing back, ICM's attorneys painted Abate as a dishonest, opportunistic agent who violated his contract and did not tell the truth about his intention to leave for Endeavor, its arch rival, even when colleagues asked him pointedly about his plans. The most searing testimony came from Esther Newberg, a prominent agent who runs ICM's literary division. She offered a tart rebuttal to Abate's description of her as one of his closest and dearest friends at the agency.

"I did view him as my friend," she said, pointedly speaking in the past tense. When she had previously asked Abate what else he might want to do, if he left ICM, she recalled, "The word 'Endeavor' never came up. He said, 'Don't worry. I wouldn't go to the William Morris Agency.' There was no talk of Endeavor, a major competitor with no book department," she continued. "And we all know what's in the contract he signed. You don't go to a competitor that's trying to form a book division."

A key reason Abate decided to jump ship, she suggested, was that he was jealous and envious of agent Sloan Harris, who had recently won a prized promotion to help Newberg run ICM's literary division.

"I still feel betrayed by Mr. Abate then and now," Newberg testified. "He was jealous that a man only four years older than him but with a stunning client list was being elevated." She added that Abate "didn't have the judgment" to properly do that kind of job at ICM.

The two sides couldn't even agree on whom exactly said what on the morning of Abate's abrupt departure from ICM's offices, after he revealed he was leaving.

Harris and Newberg recalled that they were stunned by the news but tried to be polite. Newberg said she gave Abate a baseball as a parting gift, since they each enjoyed the sport. Harris recalled that he uttered an expletive when Abate said he was jumping to Endeavor, but quickly composed himself and wished him well.

Abate recalled a more emotional scene, including a hug and an emotional exchange with Newberg, whom he viewed as a mentor. But those feelings quickly gave way to the realization that he had become persona non grata at ICM, the agent said. Newberg and Harris admonished him to exit the midtown building swiftly because the news of his departure would not play well on the West Coast. "When L.A. wakes up," he recalled them saying, "they're going to be really mad at you."

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