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The Writers Guild Cleared Jay Leno, but Now Must Indict Itself

Few issues during the November 2007/February 2008 writers strike stirred as much anger and emotion as whether Writers Guild, West, member Jay Leno violated the union’s strike rules during his return to hosting The Tonight Show. The WGAw’s investigation into Leno was conducted with utmost secrecy. Last month, Hollywood found out Leno had not been charged — but only because his name did not appear on the press release of offenders cited by the WGAw trial committees.

Sources close to Leno asked me to post on my Web site that he was unanimously cleared. “I have no problem with them bringing charges. But the unfair part is that when you’re innocent, because of all the secrecy, no one shakes your hand and says, ‘Welcome back into the fold,’” Leno was quoted by my sources as saying.

Now, I’ve learned that both Leno and the guild investigating panel asked WGAw president Patric Verrone, among others, to make public the final report and transcripts of the hearings involving Leno. But Verrone et al. refused. So why was the Guild’s excuse “confidentiality” since Leno willingly waived his? Or was Verrone more concerned about his own questionable conduct?

Only because I was releasing some of the findings did the WGAw finally release the report. The guild determined it owed Leno a public apology because Leno had been “done a disservice and his reputation harmed.”

I believe that the WGAw was withholding this report because it puts Verrone in a bad light even as his side is running for spots in the guild election. And that is just wrong.

I don’t understand why Leno himself won’t go public. Because it might go a long way to healing the wounds created during the strike when almost every working writer except Leno’s own staff was hating on him. And that animus has intensified since The Jay Leno Show was announced, because writers blame him for stripping NBC’s schedule of five hours of scripted prime-time programming a week, depriving WGA members of jobs.

My sources relay Leno’s comments to them this way: “I understand why these guys are still mad at me. I know what the animosity is about. But, if I wasn’t on, NBC would still program five nights a week of Dateline or Biggest Loser. ... For whatever reason, the network doesn’t want more scripted drama. So The Closer, The Shield, Burn Notice, all these wonderful shows are on cable.”

I do feel that Deadline Hollywood owes Leno an apology, so I offer it to him now. I praised Leno’s many visits to the picket lines, often with cups of Starbucks and boxes of donuts, in the first months when The Tonight Show was dark. But I became one of his harshest critics after he went back to work in January 2008.

My e-mail box filled at that time with allegations of strike-breaking by Leno. Soon after, WGA members brought formal complaints against Leno of violating guild rules against writing for struck companies, and the guild’s Strike Rules Compliance Committee (SRCC) began its investigation. Leno became the only late-night host to face a review over how he was able to keep doing his nightly monologue, and he was questioned by a WGA, West, trial committee.

One of the most persistent rumors was that Verrone had previously worked for Leno on The Tonight Show and therefore gave him a “pass” to write his own monologue. While Verrone had indeed worked for The Tonight Show long ago, it had been for host Johnny Carson, not Leno.

At one point, members of one late night show’s writing staff contacted me because they’d heard from a writer in the room when Verrone met with Leno. It was claimed that Leno matter-of-factly told Verrone he was going to write his own monologue and Verrone seemed fine with it. A late-night producer called Verrone to complain, and Verrone reputedly told him the union would not go after Leno. That is, until I broke the story of the Leno-Verrone meeting that December 2007, and then “Verrone had to pretend to be outraged,” the sources told me.

“The union has demonstrated to every striking writer that there is no punishment for violating their rules, opening the door for across-the-board scabbing,” one late-night writer wrote me at the time. “Verrone has put his personal relationships ahead of the cause.”

It didn’t matter that on the air his first night back, Leno respectfully acknowledged the worthiness of the WGA’s demands. But at the same time, he admitted his own strike-breaking creative process whereby “I write jokes and wake my wife up.” That’s why, on January 3, the WGA told Leno that he had violated its rules.

The WGAw’s trial-committee report details most of what I posted during the strike: At Leno’s meeting with WGAw leadership on December 31, 2007, Leno was told by Verrone that the guild was grateful for his public support of the strike, and he would not face disciplinary action for writing his monologue, since he was being pressured by NBC to return to work.

I’m told that nearly all of Leno’s writers at the meeting, as well as WGA executive director Dave Young, and even Verrone, gave testimony — under oath — to this. Leno, too, maintained throughout the investigation that “they [guild officials] really told me I could do my monologue.” Leno also denied working with scabs. He told the trial committee that he “went through 17 years of material and rewrote that.” Leno testified, “in a business as transparent as this, you can’t get away with anything.”

According to the report, it was only after protests from furious WGA members that Verrone told Leno to stop penning his own material. Leno was described as “stunned” by Verrone’s reversal. A week later, Young called Leno to warn him again to stop writing, and claimed the AFTRA clause did not apply to Leno. As a result, Leno replied that he “might have to resign” from the WGA, the report said. But the trial committee disagreed with the WGAw’s interpretation and decided it did indeed cover Leno. “The wording of the exception seems quite clear to us,” the report states.

Even more damning, the report found that Verrone did not keep the promise he made in the presence of Big Media CEOs Peter Chernin of News Corp/Fox and Bob Iger of Disney — who were negotiating to end the strike with the WGA bigwigs, as well as the AMPTP negotiator Carol Lombardini — that Leno would not be brought up on WGAw charges. Verrone told the trial committee that he never communicated that discussion to the WGAw board or the strike-rules committee.

The trial committee cited the public apology as the only way to solve the “adverse stigma” which followed Leno. “We know there was no ill intent on anyone’s part in this dispute but feel Mr. Leno’s reputation and solid service as a loyal union member have been damaged in the eyes of many not knowing the facts as we do.”

So the WGAw cleared Leno. Like it or not, that chapter of the strike story is now closed. And writers should get over it already. But what WGA members should not put behind them is their guild’s cover-up of its Leno-related screwups in the face of this month’s election. As someone who has urged Hollywood unions to practice transparency, I believe withholding this trial report should not be tolerated.