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09.09.12

Steve Wynn Battles Joe Francis of ‘Girls Gone Wild’ in Court

Casino billionaire Steve Wynn is suing ‘Girls Gone Wild’ creator Joe Francis for defamation. Christine Pelisek watches the goodfellas duke it out.

Did Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn actually threaten to have Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis killed with a shovel and buried in the desert over a gambling debt? That’s the allegation at the center of a high-stakes defamation case that’s playing out in a Los Angeles courtroom like a scene from the mob movie Casino.

Francis told a judge that Wynn wanted him dead, and the billionaire casino builder responded with a defamation lawsuit. “He committed character assassination,” Wynn’s attorney Barry Langberg said of Francis. “He did it for a simple reason: he didn’t want to pay his debt.”

Langberg said Wynn was entitled to $12 million in damages for the emotional distress and damage to his reputation and to his business empire after the alleged comment landed in cyberspace.

The allegation—originally made by Francis in 2010 and then reported on the celebrity gossip website TMZ under the headline “Joe Francis: Steve Wynn Threatened to Kill Me”—became the basis of a defamation lawsuit filed by the 70-year-old Wynn.

“At least with the newspaper, after a few days, it’s gone. They wrap fish in it, they throw it away,” Langberg told the court. “But not anymore. Today, the methods by which Joe Francis used to commit assassination are digital. It’s never gone. It’s never thrown away. They never wrap fish in it.”

The courtroom brawl between the Las Vegas businessman and the 39-year-old California soft-porn impresario featured nasty character jabs and plenty of contradictions. It also included testimony by Wynn’s star witness, Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones, who said Francis’s claim that he called Wynn a gangster sounded like “a line from Scarface.”

Wynn, who worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on entertainment ventures in Las Vegas and counts among his friends the Dalai Lama, showed up every day in court impeccably dressed, with his wife by his side. Francis was only in court for a small portion of the four days of testimony. “There has been a lot of noise about my client’s absence this week,” said Francis’s attorney, Aaron Aftergood. “It was a decision made in consultation with counsel.”

The two moguls began feuding in 2008 over a $2 million gambling debt Francis owed Wynn Casino. Wynn sued over the debt, and then Francis filed a countersuit claiming that the only reason he gambled at the casino was because as a high roller he was promised a discount on his losses. Francis also alleged that the casino offered up hookers and other incentives to keep him betting. Francis alleged that his special deal at Wynn was taken back when the casino claimed he didn’t pay off his debts on time, even though he was never told he had a time limit to pay them back.

More state and federal lawsuits ensued. Wynn sued Francis for defamation in Nevada and won, and then Francis—who spent time behind bars in Florida for contempt of court and then in Nevada on suspicion of federal income-tax evasion—sued Wynn in federal court for allegedly squealing to the local district attorney’s office about their legal fracas.

The he said–he said battle over the alleged death threat started in April 2010, when Francis appeared in court over his gambling debt. During his appearance on the stand last week, Francis told the jury that he mentioned the threat in court that day in 2010 only after he was pressed to do so by the court commissioner overseeing the case. Francis testified that he asked the commissioner to clear the courtroom, because he knew there were media there. “I didn’t want the attention,” he told jurors.

According to deposition testimony by TMZ reporter Michael Amormino in June of 2011, Francis stated during the hearing that: “Wynn had been intimidating him by making direct threats to either kill him or have somebody kill him and dispose of him in the desert in a hole.” 

Amormino said that after he heard the remark, he approached Francis in the hallway, because “I had to clarify and make sure that he knew that I understood and to make an allegation like that is pretty serious, so I wanted to remind him that—-you know, he knew who I was.”

Francis allegedly replied: “Yes, definitely it’s accurate.”

In the deposition, Amormino, said that after Francis blurted out the allegation, the presiding judge “was a little shocked and then made some mention of his safety, you know, letting him know that he had the right, like anybody else, to get a restraining order if he felt his safety was in jeopardy.”

Asked if he thought Francis was joking or being sarcastic when he made the remark, Amormino replied: “I took it seriously enough to pursue it, you know, but my impression, for whatever that’s worth, was that he was just speaking. He was just talking nonsense ... He is really impulsive, just talks when he wants to talk, so seemed like he was just spurting out stuff.”

Francis alleges that Quincy Jones warned him about Wynn: “He’s gangster. He’s old Vegas. He doesn’t play.”

Outside the courtroom, Francis allegedly told Amormino he was going to immediately file a restraining order, but he never did. “I was instructed to follow him there, and he kind of let me in that he was going to do it; he was going to do it; and at the end he said he didn’t have time, and he would do it soon enough,” Amormino said.

Francis told the jury that he learned about the threat from Quincy Jones, a neighbor and friend. Francis claimed that Jones showed him a stack of emails from Wynn containing the alleged death threats, although he said he never read them. Francis, who said he was once kidnapped and he feared for his life, said in deposition testimony that was read to the court that Jones warned him about Wynn: “He’s gangster. He’s old Vegas. He doesn’t play.”  

Francis, in the deposition testimony, also alleged that Jones told his then-girlfriend, entertainment reporter Christine McLarty, the same story. “And it became a very serious issue right before ... but right before our wedding, because the emails got very serious and she was very concerned for my safety. And then she went over there and met with Quincy about it and showed her stuff, and she came back scared. She’s like, ‘This is serious. You know, I read this, this, and this, and Quincy says he’s going to kill you.’”

Jones, who came to court in a wheelchair Thursday, denied telling Francis that Wynn wanted him dead. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an email from Steve Wynn,” he said. Jones, 79, said he tried to mend fences between the two men by imploring Francis to pay off his debt.

Wynn testified that he did not tell his friend Jones he wanted Francis dead. “I did not send an email or tell Mr. Jones I was going to kill anybody,” Wynn testified. “It is a terrible lie.”

In a twist right out of a bad B movie, Francis’s attorney, Aftergood, who argued that the lawsuit was more about the “bruised ego of Mr. Wynn,” offered another explanation as to what happened. He suggested that Jones may have confused the situation between the two men. “Quincy is a peacemaker,” he said. “He was stuck in the middle of his two dear friends.”

Landberg said Francis “made a mistake about Steve Wynn and how he valued his reputation ... There are not two sides of the story. Someone is telling the truth, and someone is lying.”

“This is a man who made his fortune exploiting the media,” he added.

Jury deliberations will continue Monday.