The day after SAG-AFTRA presidential candidate Matthew Modine threatened to sue rival Fran Drescher for defamation unless she issues a public apology, her Unite for Strength slate doubled down on her claim that Modine’s MembershipFirst slate violated the union’s election rules.
An attorney for Modine’s MembershipFirst slate has called the allegations “defamatory,” and notes that the union’s election committee, which looked into the matter, has not accused him or his slate of any wrongdoing.
In an email sent Friday morning to the union’s members, Unite for Strength said: “The LA Times reporting that Modine’s MembershipFirst were found to have again broken the rules: Share on Twitter.”
On Thursday, Drescher told members via email that leaders of Modine’s MembershipFirst slate “think it’s okay to violate the law and that the rules don’t apply to them.” She also claimed that “the non-partisan national SAG-AFTRA Election Committee found that Modine and MembershipFirst broke the rules.”
Nowhere in the election committee’s ruling, however, is Modine or MembershipFirst expressly accused of breaking any law or the union’s rules. See the committee’s full ruling here.
Drescher’s email also included a link to an August 23 Los Angeles Times article under the headline: “SAG-AFTRA election board finds KTLA, Modine-led group broke rules.” But neither she nor Unite for Strength mention in their emails that the Times later tweeted a correction to a tweet about its article that the newspaper said had “contained incorrect information.”
An earlier tweet by the Times, which was accompanied by a photo of a smiling Modine holding a SAG Awards statuette that he won in 2017 for Stranger Things, said that “SAG-AFTRA election board finds KTLA, Modine-led group broke rules,” and that “KTLA breached SAG-AFTRA election rules with Sam Rubin-Joely Fisher interview, committee says.”
While the election committee found that KTLA allegedly breached the union’s rules and federal labor law, it did not find that Modine or his group had broken any rules or laws.
In its correction, the Times followed up with a tweet that said: “The committee concluded that a KTLA Aug. 4 interview of SAG-AFTRA secretary-treasurer candidate Joely Fisher on the L.A.-based TV network breached a federal law that prohibits employer resources from being used to promote candidates during an election. This replaces an earlier tweet that contained incorrect information. We regret the error.”
In an email to Drescher yesterday, MembershipFirst attorney Robert Allen said that “Your defamation of Mr. Modine, your opposing candidate for SAG-AFTRA president, at the eleventh hour of the current election, is not only disgraceful and repugnant, but damaging to Mr. Modine’s professional reputation and career and hurtful to him personally and financially.”
This is “defamatory,” Allen told Drescher, “because it falsely states that Mr. Modine and Membership First, a group in which Mr. Modine is a prominent member, violated labor law and broke rules surrounding the current union election. The decision of the National Officer Election Committee on August 10, 2021 Pre-Election Protest, which SAG-AFTRA emailed to you, never once accused Mr. Modine of any wrongdoing – Mr. Modine did not appear on KTLA and had nothing to do with the interviews at issue. Nor did the Decision accuse Membership First of any wrongdoing. To the contrary, the only ‘bad actor’ identified in the decision is KTLA.
“Additionally, the very first sentence of the linked LA Times article specifically states that ‘A SAG-AFTRA national election committee has found that a candidate interview conducted by KTLA journalist Sam Rubin violated its rules.’ Nowhere in this article is Mr. Modine or Membership First characterized as having violated any labor law or union election rules.”
The decision by the union’s national election committee stems from an August 4 interview that KTLA entertainment reporter Rubin conducted with Fisher, a MembershipFirst candidate for national secretary-treasurer, and Rubin’s August 11 interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, a MembershipFirst candidate for L.A. Local vice president. Rubin is also an L.A. Local board candidate running on their slate, which he disclosed on the broadcasts. Modine never appeared on the show.
The election committee said that “By permitting an employee running for office to interview and promote a candidate running on the same slate during work time, while displaying the MF (MembershipFirst) campaign logo and website address during the interview, KTLA crossed the line from journalistically appropriate news coverage of the election to improper promotion of MF candidates and denigration of UFS (Unite for Strength) candidates.”
Drescher has appeared on Extra discussing her candidacy, but she wasn’t interviewed by a candidate running on her slate. As the SAG-AFTRA election committee noted, “our decision should not be read to preclude media outlets from broadcasting or distributing interviews by journalists who are unattached to any SAG-AFTRA slate of candidates for SAG-AFTRA office. Indeed, given the newsworthiness of the SAG-AFTRA election, numerous such interviews have already occurred. The KTLA broadcast involved special circumstances warranting a finding of a (federal labor law) violation – in particular the presence of a candidate interviewer from the same slate as the candidate interviewee, the display of the slate logo and website address during this promotional use of employer resources, and the admonition that members look out for their election ballots in order to vote in the upcoming election.”
The election committee said that the alleged violation could have been cured if KTLA had simply provided “equal access” to members of Drescher’s Unite for Strength slate, but as the committee noted, KTLA “flatly denied a request to provide candidates from the UFS slate an equal opportunity to appear on air,” even though Rubin had prefaced his interview with Fisher by saying that “candidates from both groups are very much welcome on our show here.”
Had KTLA agreed to grant equal time, the issue would have been resolved. The election committee, noting that “KTLA is an employer of SAG-AFTRA members,” said that while federal labor law prohibits employers from contributing anything of value to support the candidacy of any individual in a union election, “where remedial actions are taken to neutralize disparate treatment by an employer, there is no outcome-determinative violation.”
On August 5, the day after Rubin’s interview with Fisher aired, Unite for Strength attorney Bob Giolito requested equal time for Unite for Strength candidates to prevent a violation of federal election law and “an extremely costly and time-consuming re-run election.” KTLA’s Geoff Gilbert responded that same day, telling Giolito: “Thank you again for bringing your client’s concerns to KTLA’s attention. KTLA is in the process of performing a thorough investigation into these concerns. At this time, however, KTLA is not inclined to provide your client with ‘equal air time’ inasmuch as assuming, for the sake of argument only, that the analysis set forth in your August 5, 2021 correspondence is accurate, doing so would constitute an intentional violation of the law. Please call me if you have any questions and best of luck to your client in the election.”
Modine had no say in whether or not KTLA would provide equal time to his rivals, and the election committee never said that he or MembershipFirst had to do anything to remedy the situation.
In its conclusion, the committee said that “As KTLA has on multiple occasions provided significant promotional time to MF candidates, we strongly encourage KTLA, by no later than August 24, 2021, to provide an equal opportunity to three candidates from the UFS slate to appear on a program under the same terms and conditions as the MF candidates. KTLA should allot the same amount of time at the same time of day, provide a neutral interviewer who is not a candidate for office, and display the candidates’ pictures, the UFS web address, and the UFS logo with the same prominence and in the same manner that the MF candidates’ pictures, the MF web address and the MF logo were displayed. The program should be advertised in the same manner the Fisher interview was advertised. We would also strongly encourage KTLA to post a statement during this program and on its website expressly stating that KTLA is providing equal access to UFS candidates in order to cure a prior federal labor law violation and that KTLA does not and will not promote any candidate in the SAG-AFTRA election. If KTLA fails to provide equal access and to issue a statement, we will have to determine whether this violation was outcome determinative in the election once the ballots are counted.”
After Modine threatened to sue Drescher, her Unite for Strength issued a statement. “Here we go again. Every time Membership First doesn’t like the outcome of a democratic process they stoop to yet another frivolous lawsuit. Just as they have already cost SAG-AFTRA members over $2 million in failed lawsuit after failed lawsuit. Sadly, this is the second campaign in a row that Matthew Modine’s Membership First has flouted national election law. Litigiousness is not leadership. Members deserve leaders with vision, not vitriol. It takes a lot of gall to talk about kindness, and then turn around and attempt to bully people with lawsuits.”
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