“Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

The preceding quote is by J.K. Rowling from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Interesting concept.

For over three decades we have unfortunately regularly referenced cases where agents, gallery owners and stock agencies misappropriated or otherwise stole funds due creators.  (Most recently in this blog, see “But I Am Honest 98% of the Time”).

Ed has had cases where punitive damages were levied by courts against photo agents who improperly diverted monies due their photographers into their own personal or business accounts. When a court awards punitive damages in these cases it is because the agent has acted egregiously in stealing and/or diverting the artist’s money for their own benefit.  In New York (and other states) the courts can and have awarded punitive damages in amounts far exceeding the actual amount of the money stolen.

Typically and historically, after the funds are diverted agents spend the money to buy themselves homes or cars. Paying the agent’s personal debts or simply to keep the agent’s business afloat by paying its landlord, are very common.  Such misappropriations (a/k/a “stealing) are usually made possible by the issuance of false or misleading statements (or none at all) to the talent. Photographers and illustrators are notorious for not examining or questioning the statements they do receive especially when they are accompanied by a check that, “looked about the right amount”. They have no checks and balances.  This is but one reason that creators whenever possible ought do their own billing, receive payments directly from the clients and then pay the agent the commission due. That is ideal, but if you can’t do that (but you should), then always get a photocopy of the actual check to confirm amounts and dates. A bank deposit slip with it wouldn’t hurt.  

In some of these all too common scenarios, the photographer/artist/illustrator/”talent” would do well to pay a visit to the offices of their local District Attorney or United States Attorney. If you suspect that you are a victim, you ought first sit down and review your situation with your accountant and then with a private attorney. The determination of what course of action to take whether it be to file a civil suit, have a meeting with the prosecutor’s office or any other appropriate strategy must be made on a case by case basis in conjunction and consultation with professionals.        

Which brings us to these two articles. First from the New York Daily News:

“Showbiz talent agent Peter Strain admits he stole more than $500,000 from three clients.” Read all about it, right here.

Another article on the same subject can be found here, at www.broadwayworld.com

You might say at this point, “I’m a photographer, not an actor”.  But you would be oh, so wrong. There is no difference “legally speaking” between an actor suing his/her agent than a photographer, illustrator, dancer suing his/her agent. In such cases where the stealing constitutes criminal conduct under state and/or federal law, the court (in some cases) can require re-payment of funds stolen as part of a plea agreement (or sentence upon conviction) in such manner so as to save the photographer, actor etc from the need to even commence a civil suit.

According to press reports, there was some $500,000 due three actors which was diverted and spent by Mr. Strain. Incidents of photographic agents stealing monies well in excess of that number are not uncommon.  Again, whether the acts of one’s agent have risen to the level of criminal conduct and/or whether the talent ought have a “sit down” with a prosecutor, are questions for a victim to ask both his/her lawyer and accountant in an appropriate confidential setting.  Mr. Strain is apparently on his way to the lovely confines of a penal institution for the next three years or so.

On some occasions the mere commencement of an investigation by a local District Attorney or US Attorney into such a matter is enough to scare the thief/agent  to come clean, and repay that which was stolen.  The well publicized plea agreement approved by Federal Judge George Daniels in the Strain matter will we hope, serve as a deterrent to other predatory agents. Well…we can hope anyway.

In the meantime, not only be aware where they keep their brains, know where your money is.