When Mark Lambert joined the city attorney's consumer protection section three years ago, he had limited resources.
The department, which seeks out fraudulent business practices against consumers, employs only four deputies. And it has no investigator. So he had to pick and choose which cases he wanted to prosecute.
He picked talent services.
"I got a letter from a victim that was particularly well written and it informed us that there was a clear case of a scam," Lambert said. "Further investigation revealed a number of complaints to the same company. And that was the first case we filed. I got an interest in those cases."
Lambert's crusade has intensified.
Late last month, he filed complaints against two Los Angeles County companies, claiming they were illegally doing business in the entertainment industry. One, Flashcast Companies Inc. of Universal City, was charged with nine counts of running an unlawful job listing service and five counts of false advertising.
In the other, a group of management executives at Malibu Talent in Burbank were charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud, one count of grand theft, five counts of violating the labor codes of an advanced fee talent service, and seven counts of violating the labor codes of an employment counseling service.
Both Flashcast and Malibu officials declined to comment on the allegations.
The two firms are the fifth and sixth cases to be targeted under Lambert's watch. He expects more. The talent services business has a long history of abuses and many of the victims have been parents and their children in search of stardom.
Already, many referrals have come in following the announced complaints against Flashcast and Malibu, said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Those cases are only the "tip of the iceberg," he said.
"Los Angeles has always been a place where people come to pursue their dreams, driven principally by Hollywood," he said. "And dreams can come true. But anyone who is out there tarnishing that image and prohibiting people from pursuing their dreams in the most appropriate way should be dealt with. And we're going to do that."
Such abuses have been going on for generations. The issue now is how the lines between legitimate and illegitimate talent services have become blurred and how fraudulent businesses are taking advantage.
A true talent services firm, or management consulting firm, charges an up-front fee for consulting on how to select a picture, how to dress on interviews, which interviews to go to and possible classes or lessons.
Where things get fuzzy is when firms claiming to be "advanced fee" talent services take the fees and never actually provide the services promised. Then they don't return those fees.
"In the past, when prosecuting these cases, most companies said they weren't talent agencies but managers," Lambert said. "The reason they did that was there were no laws regulating managers. Employment counseling and employment agencies and job listings that was always on the books, but people weren't aware of those. It's my view that those are no exception to the talent industry."
Last year, the state legislature passed the Advanced Fee Talent Services Act under the existing labor codes that define a fee-based talent service. Signed into law, the measure took effect in 2000.
In Los Angeles, the new law was first used against one of the two companies most recently targeted by the city, Lambert said.
In the most recent case against Malibu Talent's management executives, the city claims that the firm did not file the correct contracts to take up-front fees as a talent service. This includes a 10-day right to cancel and have the fees returned if the client is not getting what had been promised, Lambert said. In the complaint, the city said the company did not return nine clients' money within that period, after failing to get job interviews and a talent agency and after charging for photographs and auditions.Targeting broader services
Even if a firm does not fall under the category of an "advanced fee" talent services firm, Lambert said he will target other businesses. In the case of Flashcast, Lambert questions how the company's job listing service has operated.
"If you're a job listing service, you have to give a 3-day right to cancel, have to give refunds, the contract can't be longer than 90 days and you have to post a bond of $10,000 with the Secretary of State they didn't do any of that," Lambert said.
Since working on these cases, Lambert said he has seen a decrease in complaints as more people become aware of the illegal business practices in the industry. But he expects many more complaints from the city.
"Mark Lambert is a tiger on this issue," said Paul Petersen, vice president of the Hollywood Entertainment Labor Council and founder of A Minor Consideration, a group that lobbies for child actors' rights. "He sees plainly that this is not just an illegitimate business practice this is an abuse of the dreams and hopes of children, and it depends on people's ignorance children's ignorance."
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