EXCLUSIVE: One of the key California laws designed to protect child actors from sexual predators has gone largely ignored and unenforced since it was enacted five years ago. The law requires publicists, managers, acting coaches and headshot photographers who work with child actors to be fingerprinted and pass an FBI background check to screen out registered sex offenders. Only then will they be issued a Child Performer Services Permit.
A Deadline investigation, however, has found that not a single Hollywood publicist who represents child actors has obtained a permit. Dozens of managers, acting coaches and photographers who work with child stars have also failed to comply with the law, which is punishable by a year in county jail and a $10,000 fine. And yet, no one has ever been charged with breaking it.
The law, AB 1660, prohibits registered sex offenders from “representing or providing specified services to artists or performers under 18 years of age.” Fingerprints and FBI background checks are required to ensure that registered sex offenders don’t skirt the law by working under assumed names.
The law was enacted to keep men like Robert Villard from entering – or in his case, re-entering – the industry after being convicted of a sex crime. Villard, in fact, was the poster-pedophile the law specifically targeted: for many years, he was a publicist, manager, acting coach and photographer of child actors, some of whom would go on to become major movie stars. But he also had a long history of sex crimes against children. In 1987, he was convicted of possessing child pornography, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. He was arrested again in 2001 after a police raid of his home turned up thousands of photos of scantily clad boys in sexually suggestive positions. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
Villard, who sometimes operated under the assumed name of Bob Moniker, continued to work with child stars until he was busted again in 2005, this time pleading no contest to committing a lewd act on a 13-year-old boy to whom he was giving acting lessons. He served seven years in prison and got out just before Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1660 into law in September 2012.
BizParentz co-founder Anne Henry, the lead sponsor of AB 1660, said that the law was designed to protect child actors from convicted pedophiles like Villard. “Before this, there was nothing to stop him from returning to the industry and starting the abuse cycle all over again,” she told Deadline. “We wanted something to prevent that from happening.”
- Martin Weiss, a personal manager to many young stars, got out of jail shortly before the law went into effect, having severed six months after pleading no contest to two counts of oral copulation with an 11-year-old boy whose career he was managing. Like Villard, he too operated under fake names including Maximilian Weiss, Paul Weiss and Menachem Mendel. But if either of them tries to apply under a fake name for a permit to represent child actors again, their fingerprints will give them away.
- Jason James Murphy, a convicted pedophile who’d already spent five years in prison for kidnapping and molesting an 8-year-old boy, was arrested just a few days after Weiss. After getting out of prison, Murphy came to Hollywood, where he worked as a casting assistant and acting coach for child actors. He was arrested in December 2011 for failing to use the name under which he was a registered sex offender, but the judge dismissed the case, saying that Murphy had not attempted to conceal his identity, even though he was working with children under the professional name of Jason James.
- Brian Peck is another registered sex offender who the law was designed to keep away from child actors. Peck, now 57, spent 16 months in jail after being convicted in 2004 of performing a lewd act on a child and oral copulation of a person under 16. His victim was a young boy to whom Peck had been giving private acting lessons at his home.
Those cases helped propel AB 1660 through the legislature and onto the governor’s desk for his signature. At the time, the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Nora Campos, said that “Under the existing law, talent agents are regulated; however, casting directors, managers and photographers are not. This loophole makes it very easy for a predator to gain access to children working within the entertainment industry.”
Wide Support, Little Follow-Through
The bill had wide support. It was backed by the MPAA and by the Association of Talent Agents. SAG and AFTRA, pre-merger, were both behind it, too, and so were the Talent Managers Association and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, among many other groups. The only opposition came from an organization called California Reform Sex Offender Laws – now the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws – which lobbies for the rights of convicted sex offenders.
“We were very supportive of the legislation,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s COO and general counsel, “and we remain insistent that it was necessary. It’s clear that this applies to photographers, managers, coaches, and publicists, and we’d like to see that any of these types of professionals who work with child performers are registered, as is required by the law. We are going to reach out to the people who should be registered under this statute and make sure they are aware of their obligation to register.”
And it’s “distressing,” he said, that so many industry professionals have failed to register. “The whole point of having this in the first place was to insure that industry people who work regularly with children would be subjected to background checks.”
Hollywood’s publicists, however, haven’t gotten the message. A database maintained by the state’s Department of Industrial Relations lists 292 valid permit-holders who are legally allowed to work with child actors. It’s intended as a guide to parents, but a Deadline review of every permit-holder reveals that not a single publicist holds a Child Performer Services Permit.
Deadline has found more than 20 Los Angeles-based publicists who don’t have permits but represent child stars on numerous hit TV shows including Stranger Things, This Is Us, Modern Family, Black-ish, Lost in Space, Revenge and Code Black. Publicists without permits also represent young stars on Nickelodeon’s School of Rock, Henry Danger and Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn, and on the Disney Channel’s Stuck in the Middle and Raven’s Home. They also represented child actors on numerous films including Fences and the upcoming Bumblebee, to name but a few.
“Any manager, publicist, photographer or acting coach who provides services to minors is responsible for complying with the law, which requires them to have a permit,” said Paola Laverde, public information officer for the Department of Industrial Relations, which enforces the law. “If the Labor Commissioner’s office finds a violation or is alerted to businesses working with minors in violation of the permit requirements, it will pass on those names to the appropriate prosecuting agency.”
Among the professions specifically addressed by the law are “public relations services or publicity, or both, including arranging personal appearances, developing and distributing press packets, managing fan mail, designing and maintaining Internet websites, and consulting on media relations for an artist or performer under 18 years of age.”
The law is more widely adhered to among personal managers, in part because the Talent Managers Association has been telling its members about it for years, strongly encouraging members who represent child actors to obtain the permits. “Our members are definitely aware of the law,” said TMA president Versa Manos. “We’ve sent emails to our members telling them that any manager who works with children must have a permit. We make that very clear. We want to make sure that parents know that their children’s managers are safe and have been cleared by the state. There’s nothing more important than the safety of the children.”
Manos, who represents two child actors, has a permit, as do TMA vice president Nikki Mincks and corresponding secretary Betty McCormick. “We highly recommend that members who represent children have a child performer services permit,” McCormick told Deadline.
More than 40 managers are listed in the state’s database of permit-holders, but Deadline has found an equal number who don’t have permits but manage the careers of child performers anyway. These include managers of young stars on many of the shows mentioned above, as well as many others including Jane the Virgin, Shameless and Designated Survivor, as well as such films as A Wrinkle in Time and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Book of Henry and the upcoming It: Chapter Two.
In other words, publicists and managers all over town are guiding the careers of young performers who they’re legally not allowed to represent. The law does not apply to talent agents, who are covered by a different law requiring that only the head of their agencies be fingerprinted. It also doesn’t apply to studio teachers, who also have to be fingerprinted and pass a background check. Casting agents, producers, actors and directors aren’t required to have permits either, although many do – mostly to coach or teach young performers.
James Symington, who has a permit to manager minors, said that a “lack of awareness” about the law is most likely the reason so many managers of child actors don’t have permits. “I don’t know if people are aware of it. I think it’s about educating managers about what is required.”
From interviews, it’s clear many publicists don’t even know about the law, while others mistakenly think it doesn’t apply to them.
“We work with a lot of agents and managers who work with kids, and I’ve never heard of this, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” said an L.A.-based publicist who represents several child stars. “I work with 50-100 people every day and I don’t think any of them have heard of this either. It seems weird that publicists would even need this.”
After reading the law, she called back to say it doesn’t apply to her because of an exception spelled out in the law, which states that it doesn’t apply to: “A person whose contact with minor children is restricted to locations where, either by law or regulation, the minor must be accompanied at all times by a parent or guardian, and the parent or guardian must be within sight or sound of the minor.”
The law, she said, doesn’t apply to her because “I’m never alone with my child clients. They’re always with their parents.”
“They Need To Get Legal”
But that’s a misreading of the of the law according to Dana Mitchell, chief consultant to the Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media. She’s the legislative aide who helped draft AB 1660 and usher it through the state legislature.
Asked if publicists who say they’re never alone with their clients are exempt from the law, she answered “No,” but added: “I cannot give you a legal opinion on this matter, merely my own personal opinion regarding the intent of the author as relayed through our committee analysis.” She then explained that exempting publicists and managers who say they’re never alone with their child clients “was the exact circumstance we intended to prevent.”
The term “either by law or regulation” that’s contained in the exception, she said, only applies to those who work with child actors exclusively on set or on location – where other laws and union rules require studio teachers to be present and for a parent or guardian to be within sight and sound of their children at all times. The exception doesn’t apply, Mitchell said, to reps who meet their young clients in their offices, or attend publicity events, benefits and awards shows with them, or who advance their careers outside the actual workplace. In other words, she said, the exception doesn’t apply to publicists.
Asked if publicists would be exempt even if they were actually never alone with their clients, Mitchell said. “No, unless they only see children on the set or location – aka place of employment – where a parent and/or studio teacher must also be present under the California Code of Regulations and the Labor Code.”
“This law absolutely applies to publicists — no question. That’s a fact,” said Henry, the co-founder of BizParentz, an advocacy group for the parents of child actors. “When we testified before the legislature, we discussed publicists in particular because Bob Villard and a few other men were promoting themselves as publicists, and they are convicted sex offenders who we did not want to re-enter our industry.”
“Publicists often have very close relationships with their clients because they travel with them on publicity appearances,” she said. “They need to apply. There’s no excuse for them not having a permit. This law’s been in effect for five years, and there’s no excuse for industry professionals who work with children to be unaware of it.” She said she “horrified” that so many are, and that “They need to get legal.”
The Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, which absorbed the Publicists Guild back in 2002, says it’s up to the local’s 400 or so publicists to follow the law, even if they don’t know it exists. “It’s the members’ responsibility to have any required licensing,” said a spokesman for guild. “We have no visibility on who’s handling underage performers or anything like that.”
Even though so many who work with child actors have failed to obtain permits, the state Labor Commissioners’ office has never received a single complaint. And while hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars were spent starting up the database and processing the applicants – for a fee of $200 for a two-year-permit – very little has been spent on enforcement. Before the bill was passed into law, the Senate Budget Committee estimated that there would be “Likely minor costs annually to the Department of Industrial Relations for enforcement.”
“We have not received any complaints or allegations that the law is not being followed,” Laverde said.
“For all the great legislation that’s in effect to protect child actors, the problem is that enforcement is often lax,” said Amanda Biers-Melcher, mother of a 14-year-old child actor.
The law also stipulates that permits, fingerprints and FBI background checks are required of anyone “providing still photography, digital photography, video, and film services to a minor for use as an artist or performer.” But of the dozens of well-known photographers whose websites say they take headshots of child actors, Deadline has found only seven who are registered: Rena Durham, Tamara Tihanyi-Knausz, Michael Chinnici, Colette Cugno, Sharlet Fouse, Luciana Nocks, Shea Pizzolatto and Nicole Benitez.
Durham said she was alerted to the law by a casting director. “Once she let me know about it, I made sure to register for the permit. I know I am one of the few that have it and I wish I could say that it makes a difference in the amount of bookings I get, but it doesn’t. The agencies continue to refer photographers who don’t have the permit and parents continue to go to these photographers – not sure if they just don’t know that it is required by law to have the permit or they just don’t care. As far as the photographers who don’t have the permit, many were advised of it and just don’t want the expense or hassle. It’s sad because the welfare of the children and the peace of minds of parents should be a priority.”
Permits are also required for those who provide “instruction, evaluation, lessons, coaching, seminars, workshops, or similar training as an artist, including but not limited to acting, singing, dance, voice, or similar instruction services for minor who is seeking to secure employment as an artist or performer.” But here too, dozens of coaches and acting teachers who cater to young performers have either not obtained permits or have not renewed expired permits.
Acting coach Anthony Meindl runs an acting workshop in town where all 15 of his teachers have permits. “All of our teachers have to have one,” he told Deadline. “We have 15 teachers. That’s a lot of licenses and a lot of permits. A casting director told us about it and we wanted to make sure we are complaint. We thought it was important for everyone to be registered.”
Concerned parents can run the names of people their children work with through the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Registry, but that database is of no use if a sex offender is working under an assumed name. To make sure that doesn’t happen, the state requires fingerprints and FBI background checks on everyone who applies for a permit.
A manager of the careers of 15 child actors told Deadline that she got her permit when the law first went into effect five years ago. “It’s very important to me,” she said. “I was very happy when they did it. I was one of the first ones to sign up. This is a big deal to me.”
A check of the state database, however, showed that her permit had expired last June. “I’m glad you told me,” she said. “I would have renewed it the second it expired. I’m going to renew it right away.” She’ll have to pay the $200 renewal fee, but she won’t have to be fingerprinted again.
Asked why she thought so many managers of child performers haven’t gotten the permits, she offered two reasons: “One, people are lazy; and two, nobody assumed anybody would follow through, and nobody has. They figure that if there are no consequences, what does it matter?”