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Writers strike case fuels criticism about how the WGA investigates misconduct

Jonathan Prince, a member accused and found not guilty of scab-writing during the 100-day strike, says the guild relied on a secret informant who gained unauthorized access to his e-mails.

October 21, 2009|Richard Verrier

As a 20-year member of the Writers Guild of America, Jonathan Prince was startled to learn that his union was accusing him of being a scab during the writers strike.

But he was even more stunned when he learned that the guild had been relying on a secret informant, code-named Clyde, who he and his attorney said had gained unauthorized access to his private e-mails.

Prince, executive producer of recent TV dramas "Cane" and "The Cleaner," was among a dozen writers who were investigated for picking up their pens and working -- or failing to report those who did -- during the 100-day writers strike that began in November 2007.

The board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West, which is charged with weighing cases of writers who ran afoul of union rules, recently "returned findings of guilt" against three writers. Prince was not among them.

Although a panel of writers concluded that Prince had been engaged in writing when he was an executive producer on a TV pilot, they found him not guilty largely because the union itself had told him it was a "gray area" when he asked if he was breaking the rules.

The case points up the charged atmosphere that existed during the writers strike, when the guild vigorously investigated several members accused of flouting the union's prohibition against writing during a walkout.

It also has fueled criticism about how the guild investigates misconduct by one of its own members. Prince's trial committee cited a number of shortcomings in the proceedings, including not supplying his attorney with all the documents they intended to introduce as evidence and the absence of written rules for how hearings should be conducted.

In a separate case, another panel of writers last month blasted the union's handling of an investigation into allegations that former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno flouted guild rules by continuing to perform his monologue during the strike. The panel recommended that the guild apologize to Leno, saying he had been "done a disservice" and that his reputation had been "harmed by the proceedings." The guild disputed that any apology was called for, and a spokesman for Leno said none was necessary.

Prince remains upset over his treatment, contending he was unfairly targeted by the guild for his opposition to the union's former leadership. Prince was among the leaders of a group of dissident show runners and feature writers labeled by detractors as the "Dirty 30" who challenged the leadership's handling of contract negotiations during the 100-day walkout.

"Someone without my permission continually invaded my personal and private e-mails, forwarded them to the guild as a smoking gun, and the guild never once alerted me," Prince said. "I want to make sure this doesn't happen to any guild member again."

Guild officials declined to comment specifically on Prince's claims, citing the confidentiality of the proceedings.

"Anyone charged with violating the 2007 strike rules was afforded a due-process hearing before a trial committee made up of rank-and-file WGAW members in accord with the guild's constitution," guild spokesman Neal Sacharow said. "In this case, Mr. Prince was found not guilty, and as far as we're concerned the matter has been fully resolved."

During Prince's trial in July and early August 2008, guild representatives did not acknowledge that Prince's e-mails had been accessed, but did suggest that the goal of weeding out strike-breaking or scab-writing activity trumped any concerns about possible violations of Prince's privacy.

"I thought it was the lesser of two evils," Dan Wilcox, a board member who chaired the strike rules compliance committee, said during the hearing, according to a transcript.

Although Prince's trial ended a year ago, he says he didn't speak out earlier because he didn't want to prejudice other cases, including that of his colleague, Jon Maas, who was recently found guilty of writing during the strike. Maas, a writer on a Lifetime pilot that Prince produced called "The Verdict," has denied any wrongdoing.

When the WGA went on strike in November 2007, Prince was in the middle of production on the TV series "Cane," a CBS drama about a Latino dynasty in Florida that operates a rum business. He also was overseeing two pilots that were in pre-production, "The Cleaner" for A&E and "The Verdict," but was not a writer on either show.

Only 10 days after the strike began, Prince received a letter from the strike rules compliance committee, which was established by the board to investigate allegations of strike-breaking. The letter invited him to appear before the committee to address the charges of scab-writing in connection with the three projects he was working on.

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