The choice facing Fred Willard seems like a no-brainer: sex-ed class or criminal prosecution?
Picked up by plainclothes Los Angeles Police Department vice officers last week during a routine investigation of a seedy Hollywood porno theater, the movie comedian was booked on suspicion of a lewd act for allegedly masturbating in public, and faces the very real possibility of a prison stint.
But on Friday, the Los Angeles County prosecutor’s office offered to let the Best in Show co-star avoid the humiliating spectacle of a criminal trial if he completes a “pre-filing diversion program”—a court-imposed sex-counseling class Willard could finish in a matter of months at a cost of less than $400, and that effectively wipes his slate clean.
The funny man had been previously charged with lewd conduct—in 1990, prosecutors said, without documenting or providing any details from that case. But contrary to all the Internet opprobrium that Willard is getting off with just a slap on the proverbial wrist thanks to his celebrity, lawyers and counselors who specialize in working with clients accused of sex crimes say the city prosecutor’s offer is a standard deal.
“Is he being treated any differently because he’s a star? No,” said Mark Haushalter, managing partner at the Los Angeles law firm, Okabe & Haushalter. “It is a little surprising that he has a record. But in light of the fact that the last charge was 22 years ago, it seems like he’s being offered one more chance: ‘As long as you do XYZ by a certain time and stay out of trouble, we’ll forget the case.’”
Assuming Willard accepts the city attorney’s offer, his rehabilitation will come in the form of two-hour group sessions with trained specialists and others facing lewd-conduct charges, once a week for somewhere in the neighborhood of five months. There, the comedian’s alleged compulsive behavior would be treated as a behavioral disorder—an affliction along the lines of sex addiction, compulsive gambling, or an eating disorder that can be held at bay by adhering to a kind of “sobriety,” but not necessarily ever cured.
Dennis Brown, director of Los Angeles’s Ness Counseling Center, a nonprofit agency offering informal diversion programs such as the one on the table for Willard, outlined the kind of hard questions the actor would likely face. “You want to go into an adult movie theater? That’s fine,” Brown said. “But now doing what you did in a public facility, what’s going on? Did you really think that no one would say anything or see? It’s not like you’re John Q. Public—you’re high-profile. So what did you not realize?”
And, Brown added: “There are underlying issues going on as to why someone does this, why they need to do it. So if he were to come to a program addressing behavioral issues, we’d ask: What happened the first time? What did he learn and not learn? What triggered him? And how do we bring that [understanding] to the current moment and into the future? How do we get it to sink in?” Even with the legal absolution available to Willard in exchange for rehab—and an implicit admission of guilt—the actor’s lawyer has indicated that the comic intends to beat the charges rather than simply avoid lockdown. “With all due respect to the individual officer, our belief [is] that Fred did nothing in any violation of the law,” attorney Paul Takakjian said in a statement. “We will be working vigorously to clear his name in this matter.”
For his part, Willard has given no indication he plans to enroll in a diversion program, breaking the silence surrounding his legal predicament on Monday by sending a message to his nearly 64 million Twitter followers. “Wait til u hear my version; much more PG,” Willard tweeted. “& my review, lousy film, but theater would make a terrific racquetball court. Full story 2 follow.”