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Journalists who accept fees for public speaking engagements have taken a lot of flack lately. But those who booked their dates through the Cosby Speakers Bureau have an out when it comes to any charges of conflict of interest: They didn’t get paid.
A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Alexandria approved the McLean-based firm’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan last week, and according to the list of creditors named in the filings, the Cosby Bureau stiffed numerous high-profile fourth estaters after they delivered speeches. Among those receiving dishonoraria: a McLaughlin Grouping of Eleanor Clift (owed $4,000 by Cosby), Fred Barnes ($3,110), and Clarence Page ($4,600); David Broder ($6,700); Molly Ivins ($7,500); Pierre Salinger ($3,900); Catherine Crier ($11,250); George Plimpton ($7,000); Cal Thomas ($3,900); and—so it goes—Linda Ellerbee ($8,400).
Cosby booked Clift and Barnes at a California university last year, and the two pundits accepted. Were they compensated? Wrong! The answer is: No! They were not paid for their speeches!
“I guess Mr. Cosby just overreached,” Clift says charitably.
The Cosby Bureau, which entered bankruptcy in December, didn’t limit its financial bungling to the media elite, according to court filings. Others waiting for a (certified) check include: sports celebrities such as pro-basketball coach Pat Riley, Ball Four author Jim Bouton, running back/war hero Rocky Bleier, and football coaches Dick Vermeil and Tom Landry; civil rights icons such as Jesse Jackson (Cosby’s top creditor at more than $50,000), Roger Wilkins, and Benjamin Hooks (hooked for $3,800); and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Ireland and Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica.
Some of the rest: Documentarian Ken Burns got burned for $15,000; Ben and Jerry were double-dipped at $7,500 apiece; former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh was stuck for $3,750, and Cosby took M. Scott Peck down the road less prosperous ($5,000). All in all, the firm owes its creditors more than $1.2 million.
But Joe Cosby, who founded the speakers’ bureau 15 years ago, now faces troubles that go way beyond mere back wages. Several former clients are mulling lawsuits against the firm. And on March 18, the day before the court approved the reorganization plan, Cosby received an unexpected booking of his own. Fairfax County prosecutors indicted him on three counts of embezzlement. The indictment cited Cosby’s failure to reimburse Thomas, Vermeil, and (talk about cojones!) former KGB operative Victor Shamoff for their speeches.
The trial is set for late May. If convicted, Cosby faces up to 20 years in prison for each count.
Syndicated columnist Thomas, who never got paid for a 1995 address he gave in Kentucky, says he’s ready and willing to testify against Cosby. “I don’t know what fee I’ll ask for yet. If they ask me my ‘normal’ fee, I’ll say $100,000. Why not start high?” he says.
But Fairfax County police Investigator John Gordon expects to have some difficulty persuading most of the injured parties to testify in a public courtroom—without remuneration—about how they got scammed.
“Some of these people are pretty big names, after all,” the investigator says.
Cosby claims the legal entanglements haven’t hurt his booking business. “We’re still up and running, absolutely,” he said. “Most of my speakers are very supportive of me, still. They’re not all calling me asking me for money.”
He referred questions about the criminal charges to attorney Nancy Luque of Reed Smith Shaw & McClay. Luque says the Fairfax indictment conflicts with the federal bankruptcy case.
“To be honest, I’m very surprised at the decision of the prosecution to go forward in this manner, given that the bankruptcy proceedings clearly demonstrate Mr. Cosby’s intention to pay these people,” Luque says.
But former Cosby client Chin-Ning Chu says the indictment is overdue. Chu, an Asian culture expert and author of The Asian Mind Game, spawned the police investigation last fall. Chu professes to have liked Cosby while he served as her agent, but nevertheless dropped the dime on him after a speaking gig at Clemson University went unremunerated. “Joe is a nice man, but he has a blind spot, and so I could see this coming for a long time,” she says. “He put his own hands into the free pot of other people’s money again and again. And then came the time when he refused to pay me, even though Clemson had already paid him for my speech. When he found out I knew he was lying about cashing the check that Clemson had sent him, he simply stopped taking my calls. I know I’ll never see a penny of what is owed.”
The speeches Chu delivered while in Cosby’s employ were filled with advice on how to use Asian wisdom in Western business dealings. The Cosby affair, she avows, wouldn’t have unfolded the same way back East.
“Greed is a universal quality,” she says. “But I am sure that an Asian would not have avoided me afterwards. An Asian would have continued taking my calls and spoon-feeding me a lot more sob stories. Joe just cut me off, so I had no choice but to go to the police.”—Dave McKenna