Behind the Screen: A Publicist’s Downward Spin

Dec 13, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Randolph Steven “Steve” Webster, the former VP of publicity for FX Networks, walked into a Los Angeles courtroom late last month surrounded by his family and wearing a sharp black pinstripe suit. Over 6 feet tall with strawberry-blonde hair, he had the look of a laid-back California guy, hardly the typical picture of a criminal. But this was a man who in September, three years after losing his job at FX, had pleaded no contest to one count of felony wiretapping for illegally listening in on business conference calls made by his former employer.

During the hearing, Mr. Webster, 38, sat quietly, looking back and forth between the judge and the attorneys. At times, he wrung his hands and kept his head down. As discussions ensued Mr. Webster began to shed tears, prompting the judge to dispense tissues to the defense table.

In the back of the courtroom sat his wife, his mother and mother-in-law. A lawyer for FX’s parent company, News Corp., sat in the front row, a visible reminder of the company Mr. Webster had wronged.

This was supposed to be Mr. Webster’s sentencing, after an earlier delay. The L.A. County district attorney’s office was recommending two years in state prison, while his defense team was asking for probation. Dueling between the prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Jeff McGrath, and the defense, headed by former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Scheper, continued that morning before Judge Norman Shapiro. Faced with conflicting views and a mountain of paperwork to study, the judge once again delayed sentencing, this time until Jan. 4.

As a red-eyed Mr. Webster talked with his lawyers and family outside the courtroom, the image was markedly different from his former image as a powerful publicity executive nicknamed “The Mayor” for his numerous contacts and wide network of relationships.

While some of the story has been reported in the press or whispered along the industry grapevine, this report is the untold, behind-the-scenes story as set forth in documents filed in court by the prosecution and defense. Those papers include and summarize documents, e-mail and other material collected during a search of Mr. Webster’s home and offices. The documents are now part of the public record.

Even for the entertainment industry, it is a twisted tale. The story has all the elements of a scandal: jealousy, broken promises, revenge and poor judgment. But it is also the cautionary tale of how a seemingly decent man, a highly compensated, well-regarded executive at a major entertainment company, could get caught up in a power struggle and fall from grace in a relatively short time.

A Tale of Two Tales

The prosecution and defense told differing stories of why it happened. In court and in the public documents, each side revealed its account of a business relationship gone terribly wrong, and how events played out.

The prosecution, in nearly 150 pages of evidence, depicted the defendant as a man who was obsessed with his former boss, Peter Liguori, the president and CEO of FX Networks, and sought revenge when the relationship floundered. It charged that Mr. Webster engaged in corporate espionage by taking confidential corporate information discussed in private conference calls and doling it out to various members of the media, including TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter James Hibberd and News Editor Melissa Grego. Ms. Grego has known Mr. Webster professionally and as a friend since they met in 2000, while she was a reporter for Variety.

The defense painted its client as a man weakened by a physically and verbally abusive employer. It maintained that even though Mr. Webster confessed to wiretapping, he is not guilty of corporate espionage.

Mr. Webster, through his lawyer, declined comment for this story.

Mr. Webster’s story begins in Reno, Nev., where he was born in 1966. He is the eldest of three boys. According to the defense, his family moved around a good deal before settling in Mobile, Ala., when he was eight. His father, who was rarely home, jumped from job to job, from working in the mortgage business to serving as a news anchor for a local TV station. According to the defense, Mr. Webster’s father was an abusive alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver when Mr. Webster was 11, leaving his mother alone to raise the boys.

Mr. Webster graduated from high school and with money from his mother attended several colleges, including the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he studied communications and public relations. He left four credits shy of earning his degree.

In his early twenties, Mr. Webster emerged as the golden son, while his two younger brothers became involved with alcohol and drugs, the defense said in its court filings. At age 30, he began to repair his estranged relationship with his youngest brother, Jason, only to lose him in a car accident when Jason fell asleep at the wheel while intoxicated. Mr. Webster was just starting at Fox.

A driven young man, Mr. Webster moved to California in 1990 to work in sports marketing after two years as a promotions and publicity assistant for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. In 1992 he jumped to entertainment as a VP of marketing and PR for Associated Entertainment Releasing. Four years later he directed publicity for Fox Sports Net. In 1999 Mr. Webster became VP of publicity for FX under Mr. Liguori.

Psychological Damage

At the time FX was a relatively new cable channel, only 5 years old. The network, launched in June 1994, had yet to strike it big with hits such as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.” FX appointed Mr. Liguori to helm FX in 1998.

A Yale graduate and native New Yorker, Mr. Liguori began his career with the ad agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather, according to an FX bio. Then he moved to HBO’s home video division, where he was senior VP of marketing, before joining News Corp. in 1996, also as senior VP of marketing. There he helped to launch Fox Sports Net. He had also dabbled in movies as the producer of 1996’s independent hit “Big Night.”

The defense said Mr. Webster and Mr. Liguori hit it off, engaging in a close “father-son” relationship. In December 2000, when other FX executives received a simple wine cork remover as a Christmas gift from Mr. Liguori, Mr. Webster was given a “high-end DVD player because of [his] good publicity work and personal favors for Mr. Liguori,” according to defense documents. And Mr. Liguori told Mr. Webster he loved him like a son, the defense said.

The defense said in its court papers Mr. Webster’s father figure put him on an emotional “roller coaster” that left Mr. Webster psychologically damaged and thus led to his “naive” actions. “In the first half of 2001 Mr. Webster’s life was his work,” according to his attorney. “When his exceptional performance at his workplace, coupled with his unusual relationship with his boss came to so abrupt an end, literally out of nowhere, Mr. Webster made his mistakes.”

Cross-Country Rivalry

By January 2001 the relationship apparently began to unravel.

Mr. Webster sought guidance from Gloria Dickey, then senior VP of human resources at Fox Cable Group, in January 2001 because he felt his relationship with Mr. Liguori was strained, according to the defense. The documents submitted by the defense state Ms. Dickey recommended company-sponsored counseling to repair the rift between Mr. Liguori and Mr. Webster.

According to the prosecution, the signs of a troubled relationship actually surfaced seven months earlier, when Mr. Webster began to feel threatened by the shift of certain publicity duties to John Solberg, his East Coast publicity counterpart based in New York. He was upset about splitting publicity projects with Mr. Solberg, and at one point Mr. Webster threatened to quit, according to an e-mail included in the prosecution’s sentencing brief. Perhaps realizing he had acted rashly, Mr. Webster changed his mind and wrote an e-mail to Mr. Liguori asking for forgiveness.

“It’s funny how you look back on things in regret,” he wrote in the e-mail dated May 12, 2000, “and the last thing I intended to do or want to happen
from this was to piss you off. I can only hope that you don’t hold this against me and will give me a chance to move on … basically grow up and not get my feelings hurt by your unintended actions.”

Yet a short time later, when Mr. Webster discovered his East Coast counterpart was making $60,000 per year more than him, he fired off a lengthy e-mail to Mr. Liguori in which he compared his disappointment to what he perceived to be Mr. Liguori’s frustrations during his contract negotiation with then Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Chernin, who is now chief operating officer of News Corp.

“I will just have to do [the job] with the understanding that as the lowest-paid executive, I am on the bottom of the list, not only in the company, but even in my own department. It’s so ironic how on a much, much smaller scale … I became Peter Liguori and you became Peter Chernin,” Mr. Webster wrote in an e-mail submitted by the prosecution.

Mr. Solberg’s increasingly close work and personal relationships with Mr. Liguori-he named Mr. Liguori godfather to one of his sons-appeared to eat away at Mr. Webster, according to the theory of the prosecutors, who argued that it was Mr. Webster’s jealousy and resentment of Mr. Solberg that led to Mr. Webster’s demise at FX.

Though Mr. Liguori lavished an expensive DVD player on Mr. Webster that Christmas of 2000, Mr. Webster nonetheless lashed out at Mr. Solberg in an e-mail written at 3:37 in the morning and cited by the prosecution that accused him of sabotage and ended with him saying he would no longer speak to Mr. Solberg outside of business.

Physical Altercation

The jealousy appeared to have subsided a few months later. Mr. Webster’s relationship with Mr. Liguori was seemingly back to normal. Mr. Webster even received a raise in April 2001, the defense said. Mr. Liguori gave Mr. Webster a birthday present that May, a “special pillow,” since Mr. Webster was having trouble sleeping.

But, the defense stated, the relationship turned ugly again in June 2001. In his sentencing submission to the court, Mr. Webster asserted that the relationship culminated in a physical altercation in which Mr. Liguori slammed Mr. Webster up against an office wall.

The allegations of physical violence are a particular point of contention. News Corp. spokeswoman Teri Everett disputed the incident and furnished TVWeek with a copy of Mr. Liguori’s sworn statement filed in court in response to the defense’s allegation, in which he denied the incident occurred. Mr. Liguori testified in that statement that he never assaulted Mr. Webster, nor did he verbally abuse him.

“During the time that Mr. Webster was employed by FX, I became frustrated on occasion by what I perceived to be extremely unprofessional behavior on his part. However, at no time did this result in `abuse’ of any kind. Mr. Webster has grossly misrepresented the nature of our interactions in order to gain sympathy … and has, again, attempted to vilify me with false accusations and to damage FX,” Mr. Liguori testified.

Ms. Everett did not provide additional comment for this article on behalf of News Corp. and its employees. She declined comment on the likelihood of additional civil action. Mr. McGrath, who has spent seven months building the case against Mr. Webster, did not address the alleged incident in his sentencing memo. “I don’t think it’s relevant to the defendant’s criminal activities involving wiretapping,” Mr. McGrath said.

The defense acted to the contrary, however, and emphasized the episode in its version of events.

Mr. Scheper said neither he nor Mr. Webster has received a copy of Mr. Ligouri’s statement.

“I can’t comment on the sworn statement, since not having seen it, but I certainly don’t take back anything I’ve written in our sentencing papers,” he said.

`Third-Floor Syndrome’

Whether or not the altercation took place, toward the end of June 2001, the prosecution said, Mr. Webster confronted Mr. Liguori at Los Angeles International Airport before they both departed on trips-Mr. Liguori to Mexico and Mr. Webster to London.

According to an e-mail from Mr. Webster to Ms. Dickey and submitted by the prosecution, Mr. Webster outlined agreements and concessions made by both sides at the airport, including his own intentions to treat his relationship with Mr. Liguori as a “business relationship.”

Mr. Webster essentially asked for more one-on-one time with Mr. Liguori, claiming he suffered from “third-floor syndrome,” referring to Mr. Liguori’s habit of making rounds to visit executives on the second floor of their office building but never venturing to the third floor, where Mr. Webster had his office. Mr. Webster also asked to have more lunches with Mr. Liguori and to be kept in the loop regarding publicity projects, citing Mr. Liguori’s tendency to speak only with Mr. Solberg.

He then concluded the e-mail by saying he hoped the matter could be resolved within 60 days.

It never was. On July 17, 2001, Mr. Webster was fired from FX for inappropriate behavior.

Wrongful Termination Suit

Mr. Webster immediately filed a wrongful termination suit against FX. He also started to phone in to FX executives’ weekly conference calls without their knowledge, using a passcode he had been given as an employee.

The wrongful termination suit was settled in October 2001. By that time Mr. Webster had listened to at least eight confidential calls, averaging 10 minutes each. A search warrant served on his home and offices in February 2004 revealed that Mr. Webster called in 276 times, racking up close to 59 hours over nearly three years. According to the prosecution, Mr. Webster made the calls from his home, offices and even his cellphone.

It is not clear why Mr. Webster began dialing in to the conference calls. The defense claims he was distraught over the way things ended at FX and made a naive mistake. The prosecution says Mr. Webster wanted revenge.

Mr. Webster began a new job in October 2001 as VP of marketing communications for Sony Pictures Television’s Game Show Network, which he considered a step down from his old job at FX, according to an e-mail in the prosecution’s brief.

And he was still trying to get Mr. Liguori’s attention.

In an eight-page missive Mr. Webster sent to Mr. Liguori in November 2001 and which was included in the court record, he lamented the deterioration of their relationship. He assured him he was not obsessed.

Mr. Webster wrote: “I am not your enemy and would never in a million years do anything to harm you or your family. If you search deep in your heart, I am confident you know that it is just the opposite, that in fact, I would do anything in the world for you and your family.”

Mr. Webster proposed in the same document that he and Mr. Liguori could be friends someday and possibly even work together again. But the prosecution said it doubts the sincerity of the letter, since just three weeks later Mr. Webster sent an e-mail to Steve Feldstein, now senior VP of Fox Home Entertainment, in which he wrote: “Promise me when you get the chance to f*** Liguori over, that you do it but good.” There was no response listed from Mr. Feldstein in the e-mail, and News Corp. declined comment on his behalf.

Anonymous Aspersions

The prosecution also contended Mr. Webster is responsible for a fax sent anonymously to Mr. Chernin just before an FX Networks overview meeting Jan. 10, 2002. The fax included criticism of Mr. Liguori’s push for more original programming. It asserted that the industry viewed FX as a weak competitor and stated that company morale was low. The fax also lambasted Mr. Liguori as a leader and claimed that Mr. Liguori did not respect Mr. Chernin.

“I won’t even touch on the levels of disrespect Liguori shows you to his executives and staff. Ask him to do his impersonation of you, which always gains some good laughs at your expense,” the fax stated.

According to Mr. McGrath, in a probation report filed when Mr. Webster pleaded no contest, Mr. Webster admitted to being the author. Defense attorney Mr. Scheper said he does
not remember what this report included, but, he said, “The district attorney, with a straight face, cannot connect that event [the fax] with anything on the same planet as what he charged Mr. Webster [with]. This is another example of the district attorney using the media to pile on Mr. Webster where the so-called evidence had no connection at all to the criminal case.”

A few months later, in April 2002, FX was sure someone was leaking information. “There were certain things in the press that they had not wanted to be publicly known at the time,” Mr. McGrath said.

FX brought an arbitration proceeding that month against Mr. Webster, since the company suspected he was behind the leaks. According to Fox legal documents, the matter was amicably resolved in April 2003 with an arbitrator’s injunction to “restrain Mr. Webster from further attacks on the company.”

Tracking Down Calls, Leaks

Still, in October 2003 FX suspected its conference calls had been compromised, according to the prosecution. FX pulled its telephone records, which showed that from December 2002 through August 2003, seven calls were placed from a Redondo Beach, Calif., number, according to the search warrant. FX referred the matter to the district attorney. Investigators discovered the number belonged to Mr. Webster. A search warrant was executed on Mr. Webster’s home and offices that yielded e-mails and even handwritten notes he jotted down while listening in on the conference calls. In August 2004 Mr. Webster was arrested.

At the core of the prosecution’s case are the e-mails that Mr. Webster sent to various reporters and editors of trade publications, including TVWeek. Also targeted by Mr. Webster, as evidenced in the prosecution documents, were The Hollywood Reporter, Multichannel News, Variety, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

It is here where Mr. Webster’s chops as a public relations man may have led to his downfall and ultimately given the prosecution reason to believe he was out for revenge on his former boss and company.

The prosecution stated the dates and content of the e-mails Mr. Webster sent to reporters coincided with the dates of the FX conference calls, surmising that Mr. Webster used the information from the calls to send a “heads-up” to the media.

One example submitted by the prosecution is an e-mail dated July 29, 2003, that Mr. Webster, who was in a new job at Universal Television, sent to a reporter telling him he would receive a call from Mr. Solberg regarding an FX ratings story. The prosecution showed the e-mail was sent at 9:58 a.m., while Mr. Webster was listening in on the conference call.

The prosecution also stated that in another e-mail Mr. Webster admitted he heard the information firsthand. The prosecution submitted an e-mail chain between Mr. Webster, then at Universal, and another reporter about EchoStar’s relationship with FX, among other things. The chain is first dated April 3, 2003, and continues to April 8.

When the reporter wrote to say he could not verify the information given by Mr. Webster, Mr. Webster replied on April 7, “Let’s just say that I did not get this information second hand … I heard it MYSELF [emphasis his].” Phone records included in the prosecution brief show that Mr. Webster had phoned in to the conference call April 1 and was on the line for close to 10 minutes.

The prosecution points out two other instances in which Mr. Webster e-mailed members of the press in April 2003. One e-mail Mr. Webster sent to a TVWeek reporter, submitted in the prosecution’s documents, spoke of a contract dispute between “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan and FX.

Included in the e-mail: “FX is balking mainly because they still lose over $10 million on the series per year (not high enough ratings to garner increased ad revenue). There you go … Have fun with it!”

According to the prosecution, Mr. Webster “made a startling admission” to a reporter in another submitted e-mail, dated April 4, 2003. Mr. Webster wrote, “Last year I called you with info for vengeance … now it is purely competitive. FX is a direct competitor to USA and SCI FI.” USA and Sci Fi channels both are under the Universal corporate umbrella.

The defense has argued that much of this information was public at the time that Mr. Webster sent the e-mails and in no way can be directly related to the conference calls. E-mails submitted by the prosecution in which Mr. Webster mentioned casting information, affiliate dealings, new projects and television show ratings were all public knowledge at the time Mr. Webster sent his e-mails, the defense stated in its documents.

The defense has also maintained that this information submitted by the prosecution is not connected with the charge that Mr. Webster has pleaded to. The defense has gone as far as to file a motion asking that this evidence be removed from the hearing.

Character References

In the face of this evidence, Mr. Webster’s legal team created a defense that showed him as a hard-working employee who was defeated both personally and professionally by an abusive employer. They say he was a man who did not know how to respond to the souring of his career at FX, a traumatic experience that was yet another in a series of unfortunate events he has experienced.

Not all has gone sour for Mr. Webster. In the midst of professional chaos, he found love. He married Stella Sampras in January 2003. Mr. Webster’s brother-in-law, Pete Sampras, the retired pro tennis champion, even submitted a letter for the defense testifying to Mr. Webster’s good character. “Caring, compassionate, honorable, reliable, honest and trustworthy … one of the most respected publicity executives in town,” Mr. Sampras wrote.

In addition to Mr. Sampras, at least 12 others have submitted letters to the court on his behalf.

“The letter-writing campaign for Steve is touching because the people are putting their names on the letters of support. The letters say, I don’t condone his actions, but he is basically a good man caught up in a once-in-a-lifetime situation of real bad luck and a real bad event,” Mr. Scheper said.

Though Mr. Webster pleaded no contest to a felony, the defense is angling for a misdemeanor-level probation, which would require neither jail time nor a psychiatric examination. However, the district attorney’s office has recommended two years in state prison. Mr. McGrath has asked that if the judge grants probation, Mr. Webster be required to undergo a mandatory 90-day psychiatric evaluation by the Department of Corrections-while he’s in the DOC’s custody. If the evaluation indicates Mr. Webster shows remorse and is unlikely to offend again, Mr. McGrath said, he would not be opposed to probation.

Mr. Webster’s mental condition at the time of the wiretapping and subsequent e-mailing have become a focus in the hearing as well. His psychiatric records remain under seal, but Mr. Scheper said he has been seeing a psychiatrist regularly and has already undergone extensive evaluation.

Back in Business

As Mr. Webster awaits his fate, life in Hollywood goes on. FX has found success with award-winning shows, including “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me.” Third-quarter household viewership was up this year by 26 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research (TVWeek, Dec. 6). According to an FX statement on ratings, the network has averaged 1.3 million total viewers for the third quarter. In addition to higher ratings and viewership, FX said it has reached “all-time highs in advertising and affiliate revenues.”

Mr. Liguori, who has a wife and two children, signed a new five-year contract with FX in 2001 and is widely credited with turning the channel around. Mr. Solberg is now based in Los Angeles, where he serves as the sole spokesperson for FX.

Mr. Webster’s crime and subsequent notoriety were enough to challenge the old adage that any publicity is good publicity. He is free on $10,000 bail awaiting sentencing. The civil and criminal litigation is estimated to have cost him nearly half a million dollars in legal fees for two sets of law

He is running his own boutique PR business, and has cobbled together some clients among family and longtime friends. He has a small office, with a few part-timers to help him out.