Entertainment Industry

Category: Jim Wiatt

Former William Morris Agency chairman sues to recover millions allegedly lost in Kenneth Starr Ponzi scheme

Former William Morris Agency Chairman and CEO Jim Wiatt has gotten caught up in Kenneth I. Starr's Ponzi scheme, and is suing Starr to recover the $2 million invested with the financial advisor whose clients included many top Hollywood celebrities.

The suit, filed in federal court in New Jersey, alleges that Starr and Jonathan S. Bristol, a former partner in the Winston & Strawn law firm, conspired to defraud Wiatt and his wife, Elizabeth. It accuses the law firm and Bristol of negligence and malpractice, among other complaints, in connection with the scheme.JimWiattjsln1jnc

Starr had been Wiatt's financial advisor since 2003, the suit noted. Indeed, the two men had met for drinks on the eve of Starr's arrest for diverting millions of dollars of clients' money to support his lavish lifestyle, the lawsuit claims.

According to the complaint, Wiatt consulted Starr in October 2009, when he needed a lawyer to represent him in his negotiations to leave the William Morris Endeavor Agency. Starr referred Wiatt to Bristol. The suit alleges that the two men would later work together to steal the Wiatts' money through a pair of fraudulent transfers.

Starr pleaded guilty in September to diverting $20 million to $50 million of his clients' money for personal use. He is currently in prison while he awaits sentencing. Last week, Bristol was indicted by federal prosecutors, who claim he conspired with Starr to help launder more than $20 million in proceeds from the money manager's celebrity clients, who included Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Michael Imperioli.

When an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission sought to contact Wiatt, he unwittingly turned to Starr for advice, not knowing that Starr was being questioned by the SEC, according to the suit. The financial planner dismissed the call as part of a "routine" investigation of financial planners in the wake of the Bernard Madoff scandal, the suit said.

Starr did not acknowledge that he was a target of the investigation, the suit alleges. Instead, he referred Wiatt to Bristol -- who reassured Wiatt that "there was nothing to worry about," the suit said.

"Bristol said, 'I''m happy to help you,' " said David S. Stone, the New York attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Wiatt. "He didn't tell [Wiatt] ... that he was conspiring with Starr to steal the money in the first place."

Stone said his client would seek to recover not only the money he and his wife lost, but also millions in punitive and compensatory damages. 

A representative of the Winston & Strawn law firm did not respond to messages seeking comment. Starr's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Bristol, contacted at his home in Chatham, N.J., said he has not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo of Jim Wiatt. Credit: Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images for HRTS

Endeavor and William Morris tango toward finish line

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The mating dance between rival agencies William Morris and Endeavor continues with the William Morris board set to discuss the potential marriage at a board meeting scheduled for tomorrow, and Endeavor's partners expect to follow suit shortly after, according to people close to the situation.

Though the ongoing talks have generated lots of attention and media scrutiny, a merger of the two competing talent shops is hardly Microsoft marrying Apple: Combined, the agencies would have estimated annual revenue of about $300 million.

But by joining forces, William Morris and Endeavor would create a talent juggernaut positioned to challenge Hollywood's top-seeded Creative Artists Agency. The combined entity would also, in theory, have more leverage in negotiating with the television and movie studios.

Driving the merger is a punishing economic climate in which fewer jobs for actors, directors and writers and a contracting market for TV shows mean lower commissions and fees for the agencies that depend upon them for their bread and butter.

AriAlthough talks are progressing and some Hollywood insiders think a deal is all but a fait accompli, there are still myriad unresolved issues that could scuttle or at least further delay a merger. However, with William Morris chief Jim Wiatt and Endeavor partner Ari Emanuel aggressively pushing for the deal, it seems to be more a matter of when rather than if.

How a merged William Morris/Endeavor would be structured is one of the biggest sticking points. Both have upper levels of management -- William Morris has 20 directors and Endeavor has 28 partners stocked with heavy egos and pocketing hefty paychecks. A merger could mean a thinning of the ranks from top to bottom and a bake-off among suits, which would no doubt result in many agents at the two firms looking to jump ship.

-- Joe Flint and Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo Credits: Wiatt (top right) by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images; Emanuel (lower left) by Eric Charbonneau/WireImage.com 

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