The Pooh Papers
THE WRONG BARREL OF WILDCATS
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 24, 2002 -- The Walt Disney Co. came to our house today, not with Mickey Mouse and Pocahontas and a silly grin, but in a dirty T-shirt with a foreign accent, a pile of ancient contracts and old newspaper articles under one arm, all attached to subpoenas for me and my wife.
Around noon, they served my wife with the summons and three Winnie the Pooh contracts dating back to 1930, and then came back at six with a summons for me - this one with "The Pooh Papers" attached - demanding that we give depositions and deliver to them every scrap of paper has something to do with Mireya's work as a maid for Pati Slesinger, and in my case, with my series of 23 articles about her mother's long-running lawsuit over money owed her by Disney under a license she gave them to use the characters in the 1926 children's best-seller, Winnie The Pooh.
Disney's subpoenas are part of a campaign to terrorize journalists who have been calling a thief a thief, and in the case of this journalist and his wife, their plan has just stopped working.
Our answer to these papers will be that we have no documents that Disney is entitled to see under California's "shield" law, which protects the sources of journalists from exposure by lawyers for rapacious corporations like Disney.
After all, this is the company that just a few months back settled up with the State of California for paying thousands of poor working women about $2 an hour for years to make the magic wands that light up Disney's cash registers. Just today, a labor rights group has nailed Disney for paying between $0.08 and $0.19 cents an hour to workers in Bangladesh who toiled 14 to 15 hours a day in a verbally and physically abusive environment where the only water was loaded with bacteria.
So, behind the big-eared rat that fronts for Disney are a bunch of slimy lizards in suits and ties. This is the company that cheated Peggy Lee and countless others in countless ways over the years, and that in this case has cheated a widow and her daughter out of hundreds of millions - if not billions - of dollars on a contract Walt Disney himself signed with them some 42 years ago.
Disney has kept Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, the 81-year-old widow of Stephen Slesinger, and their daughter Pati in court for something like 11 and a half years now as it fights back against a judge who has found them guilty of destroying most of the relevant business records. and then misleading and deceiving a team of court-appointed former judges and accountants when the books were opened up for an audit.
The people whose theme park rides tear the hands off little children have been enjoined by their judge from even arguing they they did not have to pay the Slesingers, so it's all over but the crying. Other studios are already moving in on the property, which will revert to the Slesingers if Disney, as many expect, is found guilty of fraud and breach of contract at a trial next May.
Now they are coming after my wife because she worked for Pati and her mom, cleaning their windows and bathrooms and making their beds and cooking their meals, back-breaking work that she performed without complaint and without a cent of Social Security money going into her retirement account. They fired her when I quoted Pati correctly in one of my stories as using the word "disgusting" to describe a judge's ruling in the case, and just thinking about the indignity of being fired for that still makes Mireya cry, and still makes me mad. But that doesn't change the facts in Slesinger v Disney, which we have reported since a June 19, 2000, ruling in which the judge first told Disney he'd caught them in a Web of lies about their destruction of documents related to the case.
Mireya doesn't speak English, so when Disney asks her to share with them all the secret documents she got from Pati Slesinger about the Winnie The Pooh case, what they are really saying is, "You're a poor, foreign-born, Spanish-speaking housemaid and we're trying to scare you to death, because we're a $25-billion-a-year corporation that pulls the levers and moves the gear in this company town."
Mireya never got any documents from the Slesingers and neither did I; all the documents I have in my possession came from Disney's lawyers when the court told them to open up the files that had been kept secret for so long. They sent them to my lawyer and my lawyer gave them to me, period. I got most of my stories by hard work at the courthouse, and I got them because I knew better than any other reporter that it was a hot story. The Los Angeles Times had known that almost 10 years ago when correspondent Josh Meyers looked into it, but the Times never reported on it because the case was sealed.
Ten years and two Freedom of Information battles later later, the case was opened and I began to write about it in earnest. The Slesingers didn't know when or what I was going to write and they didn't get my articles any sooner than anyone else did. Some of the time they didn't like them, and most of the time, their lawyers bitched and moaned about the content. Disney was always asked to respond but rarely did. No one called the shots on these articles but me.
It is not unethical in this business to know the source whose case you write about, and I certainly do know Pati and her mom. I wrote the Goldbook for them in 1982, when they were having those critical conversations with marketing executive Vince Jefferds that Disney is so worried about, and on and off again over the years. I have earned a share of royalties from the books I wrote for them, and while it isn't much, at least I was paid.
That relationship, a professional one, was disclosed in my first articles in June, 2000. But Disney has no right to invade our life because I have written truthful articles about them largely based on what Judge Ernest Hiroshige has said in a series of rulings that are highly critical of Disney.
As they did with another journalist, Nikke Finke of the New York Post and now the LA Weekly, they want to blunt the truth that is slowly coming out about their theft of royalties not only from the Slesingers but many other less able licensees who got ripped off over the past half-century by guys who have turned it into an art.
Those other licensees, if they got anything, settled for pennies on the dollar and signed secrecy agreements; they couldn't stand up to the wolves that were eating them alive in Burbank. The Slesingers not only had the money - and it's cost many millions - but they had the guts to go up against a company that operates with impunity most of the time. What will come out in the trial, from what I hear about it, is going to be painful in the extreme for Disney, its executives and its stockholders. It will also be well-deserved, in my view.
Why are they after me and my wife? It's pretty simple. They want to compromise whatever I might know about those conversations with Vince Jefferds - the man who the Slesingers say promised to pay them royalties for videocassettes and computer software - and they want to put out the fire of nine stockholder lawsuits that arose because Disney did not tell anyone about the suit for 11 years.
It just so happens that I was the first journalist to confront Danny Petrocelli of O'Melveny & Myers with the critical question: Why not? They waited 11 years and then another several months after that to tell the SEC and the stockholders, who have seen their Disney stock decline 30 percent since the case was publicized.
But neither me nor my wife is scared. She has come up against the Sendero Luminoso, the terrorist Shining Path, in her hometown of Cuzco, Peru, and didn't lay down for a second when they assassinated her brother, a professor of economics, in his offices at the university. She survived the Alberto Fujimori government's wholesale plunder of the private banking system that broke her employer, the Banco Popular, and left her with a bankrupt pension plan after 21 years of work. She survived the fear and desperation of being an illegal alien in this country who had to work in other people's homes to send her son through medical school. So Disney hasn't got another patsy to play their heavy hand against; she is as fierce as a lion when she needs to be.
And frankly, all of Disney's power and all of Disney's money won't frighten me, either. I was a kid who hitch-hiked halfway across this country with three cents in my pocket at the age of 14. I've been shot at lying down, standing up, and flying, in the daytime and the dark. I worked at a rodeo all day at 15 to ride a wild barebacked bronc. I've been hit over the head with baseball bats and flashlights and lead pipes, and I've survived car wrecks, a scalding, a terrorist's bomb and a minor case of kidnapping. After you've been cowed by IRA thugs in a doorway in Belfast, the Walt Disney Co. doesn't scare you a bit.
Moreover, the dimwits at Disney who couldn't make a profit if they were crapping gold have it out for the cyberhide of our tough little daily newspaper, The American Reporter. Our reporters have survived Palestinian mobs and Suharto's thugs and crooked cops and politicians. We've put con artists in jail and fought for a desperate retarded man on Texas' Death Row. We've stood alone on the Pooh case when the world's media was afraid of it, intimidated by Disney's power and money, and the dreadful complexity of a lawsuit shrouded in 11 years of total secrecy. We were the first to start on the Net and we'll be here when the cowards and cheats at Disney are long gone.
We've stood up to both houses of Congress and the President of the United States and fought them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of our rights as citizens to speak and publish what we believe. Disney wants to threaten us for doing exactly that, but they have engaged the wrong barrel of wildcats. We will not stop.