Joe Francis is a tough guy to avoid. Flick on late-night TV and you'll be bombarded with the not-so-subtle ads for his Girls Gone Wild videotapes, which feature cheesy, low-budget footage of tipsy coeds flashing for the camera. In the four years since Francis first started showing up at Mardi Gras parties and spring-break beach bashes, enticing young women to bare all in exchange for a T shirt, the tapes have become wildly popular. Frat boys proudly play the videos at parties. Justin Timberlake and Brad Pitt sport Girls Gone Wild caps around town. The tapes have also made Francis, a former TV production assistant who maxed out his credit cards to start the company, a very rich man. He's moved millions of tapes, and built GGW into an empire reportedly worth $100 million. Donald Trump gushes about Francis, hailing him as a "great entrepreneur."
He's certainly living the life of the big-time tycoon. At 30, he hosts movie stars on his private jet, cruises the streets of L.A. in a Ferrari and squires around a series of rich girlfriends, including hotel heiress and professional party girl Paris Hilton. His latest project, NEWSWEEK has learned: a nationwide chain of theme restaurants. "We want it to be like Hooters," Francis recently related aboard his leased Gulfstream. "We want to have them across the country in college towns."
Unless he winds up in prison. Last spring Francis was arrested in Panama City Beach, Fla., where he was filming students on spring break. Police charged him with 22 criminal counts, including charges of racketeering, obscenity and conspiracy to use a child in a sexual performance. Law-enforcement officials say that videos Francis's crew shot there included footage of at least 30 underage girls. Some are allegedly seen flashing for the camera. That alone may not violate Florida law. In a case against Francis last year, a Florida judge threw out a civil suit in which an underage girl claimed that as a minor she could not consent to being filmed topless, ruling that it was not illegal to tape someone who willingly exposed herself in public. This time, prosecutors are building their case around footage of other allegedly underage girls who, officials say, are shown performing various intimate acts. (In addition to the usual videos, Girls Gone Wild subscribers can choose to receive more explicit tapes.) Authorities allege that Francis knew the girls were underage, and instructed some of them to say they were 18 when they stated their age for the camera. Police also charge that Francis offered to pay two of the girls $50 to fondle him. Francis was released on bail until his trial sometime next year. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than 50 years.
Through his lawyer, Aaron Dyer, Francis emphatically denies the charge that he engaged in any sexual conduct with minors. "We believe that that allegation is untrue and that there is no tape or any other credible evidence showing that this occurred," Dyer says. Francis himself told NEWSWEEK he never knowingly filmed underage girls. "There are too many girls of age who want to do it. Why would we take the risk?" Even so, the company didn't appear to go out of its way to discourage minors. Spokesman Bill Horn says film crews asked those who appeared in the videos to sign a consent form, say their name and age on camera and show an ID. But, he says, "If they don't have ID, we have to take them at their word."
If anyone's a victim, Francis says, it's him. He insists he's being prosecuted only because he ticked off Panama City Beach Mayor Lee Sullivan. Last spring, when the mayor tried to block Francis from filming there, Francis taunted him as a "local tyrant"--and sued for the right to proceed. Sullivan, who says Francis's claims don't merit a response, backed off--until the arrest, anyway.
But prosecutors aren't the only ones with their sights set on Francis. Ernie Allen, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says his group is keeping close watch. "It's a very important case because of the visibility. Our view is that exploited kids do not have the right to consent. There's an obligation to do more than say, 'She looked 18 to me'." In a civil suit in New Orleans, two teenage girls allege they had no idea they were being filmed when they lifted their shirts at a Girls Gone Wild party hosted by Francis. "These girls are just trying to get money," Francis says. He may end up spending plenty of it just to stay a free man.