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7/29/2004

Slug > Slug

Pearlman's jihad

 

I could almost hear Lou Pearlman chortling — actually, I imagine it to be more like wheezing — as I read the July 21 Orlando Sentinel story “State clears Pearlman after modeling probe,” which noted that a two-year attorney general’s investigation into Big Lou’s model-scouting company — variously Wilhelmina Scouting Network, Options Talent, Trans Continental Talent and eModels, Inc., — had ended, “unable to find any substantial violation” of law.

Pearlman’s had a good couple of months. First, it looks like the city is going to hand over the $3 million incentive package it promised more than a year ago for Church Street Station’s redevelopment, never mind Pearlman missing deadlines, not paying contractors, being late on property taxes and so on.

And now his official exoneration from the state of Florida.

Despite 2,000 complaints to state investigators alleging that the modeling company Pearlman owned from September 2002 to October 2003 was a scam, the state attorney general’s office decided the case wasn’t worth pursuing. (Recall that Pearlman publicly, and vehemently, distanced himself from the companies in question by suing dozens of Options Talent consultants and employees for $100 million, alleging they misled him during negotiations for Pearlman’s takeover. That got him a big headline in the Sentinel. What the paper didn’t report was that Pearlman dropped the suit in April.)

But Pearlman isn’t satisfied. Perhaps pissed off at the months of bad press, Pearlman’s newest offering, Fashion Rock, LLC, has gone on the offensive, inundating his critics with lawsuits. On June 4, Fashion Rock, which sells weekend conventions to wannabe actors and models for $1,500 a pop, filed a lawsuit against 200-plus named and unnamed detractors and 50 unnamed companies. He’s alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, misappropriation of trade secrets, civil conspiracy and racketeering.

But that’s not all. Four Fashion Rock employees sued William Rosenberger, who Fashion Rock claims in the suits was the operator of www.transconscam.com. Also named in the suits are Rosenberger’s mother and his dead father’s estate. And Fashion Rock has taken their jihad into cyberspace, launching www.transconblackmail.com and a dozen other websites that paint Rosenberger as a mentally unstable conspiracy nut, and other critics as charlatans on a vendetta who play loose with facts.

It’s Pearlman’s less-than-subtle way of saying, “Don’t mess with me.”

Is his threat empty? The defendants think so. “I haven’t been served,” says Frank Torelli, an investigative reporter for www.ripoffreport.com, who was named as a defendant. In fact, Torelli and other defendants say only one defendant, Les Henderson, has been served. Henderson says he had never even heard of Fashion Rock before the lawsuit, much less defamed it. “I haven’t changed my [web] page in two years,” he says. “I haven’t mentioned Fashion Rock.”

The lawsuits, essentially, boil down to three points: The defendants posted false information on various anti-Pearlman websites, which turned off potential customers; they fed negative stories to the media, who then reported it, turning off potential customers; they gave bad information to state officials, which prompted the state investigation, which was then reported by the media, and turned off potential customers.

Racketeering seems a little far-fetched — defendants would have to be conspiring together to make money — but if you browse these websites, you can see why Pearlman believes he’s being defamed. By Torelli’s own admission, www.ripoffreport.com does very little to check the veracity of each posting on its site.

“We give the [complainer] the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “We will assume the story posted is true despite [a] business’ complaint, unless we find otherwise.”

One posting on www.ripoffreport.com, from “Steph” in Phoenix, dated February 2003, is a good example. Steph claims to be an ex-employee who was taught “how to trick people and mislead them ... I promise you they are a complete scam.”

The problem is, there’s simply no way to know how credible “Steph” is. Yet anyone who was scanning the Internet for information on Pearlman’s company, and came across this post or countless others just as derogatory, would be hesitant to throw money Pearlman’s way.

Nonetheless, Torelli and Rosenberger think Pearlman is trying to bully his critics into silence. “I don’t think their intention is to serve me,” Torelli says. “It’s simply a matter of diverting attention, to show it to the people with the attorney general’s office, for instance.”

Torelli made some news last year when he recorded and posted online a phone conversation with WFTV Channel 9 general manager Bill Hoffman, in which Hoffman seemed to suggest that Pearlman had bought his way out of tough news coverage. And, as my 10-minute chat with Torelli made clear, he’s not a fan of the man who spawned the Backstreet Boys.

Actually, to hear Torelli describe it, Pearlman is a schmuck. “It’s all smokescreen,” he says of the lawsuit.

Rosenberger says many people worked on www.transconscam.com — asked if he was one, he said, “That’s a matter for the court” — and claims in an interview that Pearlman and company manufactured evidence it used to sue him last year in federal court. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction in May.

“This is kind of like a saga, a miniseries,” Rosenberger says. “I hope you know how bad this is for them, to use and abuse the court system.”

Rosenberger and Torelli both point to the fact that the state attorney’s lead investigator on the Pearlman case, Jacqueline Dowd, was forced to resign in February from the attorney general’s office. They believe she was focusing too aggressively on Pearlman. A few months after she was replaced, the case disappeared.

Dowd declined to comment. “I honestly don’t know what good it would do for me to get involved in the Pearlman case,” she told me. (Fashion Rock’s lawyer, Reca Rene Chamberlain, didn’t return phone calls.)

Expect the war of words to continue. Asked if he plans to retaliate against Fashion Rock for calling him “mentally unstable,” Rosenberger hints that “things are in the works.”

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