Quick, name a female figure skating champion. Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, any one will do. They are names we learn once every four years, see on a few Wheaties boxes, then probably never see again on a national stage unless they end up on Dancing With the Stars or Celebrity Rehab. Whoever wins the gold medal in Sochi in a few months might rake in a few million dollars in endorsement deals and then go tour with Disney on Ice, but would you think they could be worth nearly half a billion dollars?
Well, former Olympic champion Oksana Baiul believes she is, as she recently filed a lawsuit against her former talent agency, William Morris, in the New York County Supreme Court seeking more than $400 million in damages for misappropriating her funds, theft, and even violations of federal racketeering laws.
Although some of Baiul’s claims might have merit, her lawyer, Raymond J. Markovich, Esq., who doubles as a Hollywood producer, is really reaching for the stars in his damages assessment. To put this into perspective, Lebron James, one of the richest athletes in the world, earned $53 million last year. Baiul is seeking about nine times that amount.
Interestingly, Baiul originally sued William Morris last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming the agency had cheated her of millions in earnings, royalties and residuals after signing her when she was a minor and did not understand English. Now, in the Manhattan case, Baiul adds violation of federal anti-racketeering law to her list of claims, accusing William Morris and other individuals and entities of transferring and laundering her money.
William Morris signed Baiul in 1994 when she was 16-years-old, and renewed the agreement three years later in 1997. Baiul won the women’s singles figure skating gold medal in Lillehammer in 1994, edging American Nancy Kerrigan. The skater says that when she entered into the contracts she could not read or speak English.
Her current lawsuit names William Morris agents Sheldon Schultz, Michael Carlisle, James Griffin, Alan Dworkin, Richard Hersch, accounts Patricia Black, Alan Suskind, and Alan Wallin as defendants along with more than a dozen other individuals.
One of the slimiest allegations in Baiul’s Complaint is that after she won the gold medal, her talent agency had her move from Ukraine to Simsbury, Connecticut in 1994 to train at the International Skating Center of Connecticut and as a means to control Baiul, her agents kept Plaintiff’s passport.
The Complaint details allegations of how six and seven figure endorsement deals were siphoned off or flat out stolen from Baiul including $100,000 from a deal with Mars Candy and a $500,000 advance for the movie, “A Promise Kept.” She also claims William Morris failed to account for $150,000 from a line of jewelry, and a $100,000 advance and royalties with Sony for merchandising, as well as earnings from television specials, including “Nutcracker on Ice” and “Wizard of Oz on Ice.”
Baiul’s loftiest claim is that all of her handlers, agents, accountants, and lawyers conspired against her in violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced And Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. Section 1961 et seq. If Baiul can successfully prove that all of these actors conspired to steal from and defraud her of allegedly $56 million then she can claim treble damages plus attorney’s fees.
The RICO statute states that
It shall be unlawful for any person who has received any income derived, directly or indirectly, from a pattern of racketeering activity or through collection of an unlawful debt in which such person has participated as a principal within the meaning of section 2, title 18, United States Code, to use or invest, directly or indirectly, any part of such income, or the proceeds of such income, in acquisition of any interest in, or the establishment or operation of, any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.
In its most basic, bar exam review terms, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a criminal act that requires an overt act, or an act taken by one of the parties of a conspiracy in furtherance of one or more of the criminal objectives of the conspiracy.
In other words, Baiul will need to somehow provide a paper trail to link all of the alleged wrongdoers to a single conspiracy to rob her. Simply proving individual wrongs is not enough. She must show that all of the defendants acted in concert with one another or, alternatively, that they were all part of a common conspiracy with a central leader, despite not actively working with each other – much like the spokes of a wheel.
Baiul also throws in breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent concealment, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, tortious interference with a contract, and conversion claims for good measure. But with treble damages, the RICO claim is the bread and butter of her lawsuit.
It seems inconceivable that not only a figure skater could earn more than $100 million in the 1990s, but that she could also be naive enough to not notice that massive amount of money being stolen from her. But if Baiul prevails in obtaining a judgment of more than $400 million, it could send massive waves through the talent agency world as William Morris clients like Christian Bale, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Claire Danes could flood for the exits.