BACK STAGE WEST
Agency gives up franchise after years of complaints.
by Rob Kendt
If a good agent is hard to find, the inverse would seem to be that an erring agent is hard to fine, prosecute, or reprimand. Debbie Durkin and her eponymous Durkin Artists Agency have weathered a storm of serious complaints since late 1995 that they were charging clients for the chance to be represented through the classic bait-and-switch of requiring "classes" at a specific school, that they were roping them into the common headshot kickback scam, even that they were making direct appeals to clients to help out with office expenses or buy raffle tickets.
Those allegations alone were not enough for either the Screen Actors Guild to revoke Durkin's agency franchise or the state labor board to revoke her license. But a far more serious case, which first came to light in the spring of 1996, involved allegations that Durkin negotiated a commercial reinstatement for a former client, Donte Green, without his knowledge or authorization, and failed to turn over his residuals earnings for more than a year.
The case was the subject of a SAG agency arbitration in October, which found for Donte Green, fined Durkin $3,500, and suspended her franchise for six months on grounds of "dishonest conduct," forgery, and withholding of funds. Last week Durkin surrendered her SAG agency franchise to become a personal manager.
Donte Green was initially signed by Durkin along with his mother, Donya, and his sister in June, 1992. According to Donya Green, Durkin asked for money right away: She charged the Greens $100 each to be in her "agency book," which Donya didn't know at the time was a dubious request for an agent to make of a client.
When the then-15-year-old Donte landed a national Kellogg's Frosted Flakes commercial titled "The Hook," Green says Durkin held up her son's payments for seven weeks, and when Durkin finally turned them over, she had deducted an "agency advance" for photos of Donte's sister from the check.
So, Green says, she fired Durkin as her family's agent in October of 1992 with a certified letter, and says she notified both SAG and Talent Partners, the Chicago-based payroll company that handled "The Hook," of the firing so they would send all correspondence to her. She and her family subsequently moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., and later to West Phoenix. Green says she kept her numbers publicly listed, and kept her address updated with SAG.
Apparently this information was not easy to come by, though, because when the Leo Burnett Ad Agency called Durkin Artists in February, 1995, to negotiate a reinstatement of the Kellogg's commercial in which Donte appeared, Durkin was unable to locate the Greens, though she was aware they lived in Arizona. So Durkin negotiated a reuse deal on Donte's behalf, plus a 20 percent agency commission, and listed herself as Donte's legal guardian, apparently forging his signature on the contract—though by that time Donte was 19.
All this came to Donya Green's surprised attention in April, 1996, when a SAG dues statement informed her that her son had made $16,000 as an actor the previous year. Green called the payroll company, Talent Partners, and found it had been paying Donte's residuals in care of his "legal guardian," Debbie Durkin; Talent Partners had sent the W-2 to the Green's old Scottsdale address, from which it was not forwarded.
After Green contacted Durkin, Durkin sent checks totalling 80 percent of Donte's residuals earnings, claiming the other 20 percent as her agency percentage, though SAG agents are prohibited from negotiating more than 10 percent on any SAG job, even a reuse or reinstatement. In any case, at the arbitration in October of this year, the arbitrator, Dixon Q. Durn, awarded Green all the residuals earnings, finding that Durkin had "acted without authority" and was thus entitled to no percentage at all, and awarded Donte Green the remaining $4,783, plus interest.
Durkin's lawyer, J.J. Little, told Back Stage West/Drama-Logue that he has "no reason to believe that [Durkin] doesn't intend to comply with that [judgment] fully, even though it's undeserved and unfair and not supported by the evidence. It's based on an arbitration that was conducted without Debbie having the opportunity to defend herself."
In fact, Durkin, who was not present at the arbitration hearing due to an unspecified medical condition, was represented there by a lawyer, Thomas Byrnes. Arbitrator Durn had offered to let Durkin participate in the arbitration hearing by phone, but according to Little, Debbie's medical problems rendered her unable to use a speakerphone. Even so, Donya Green's original claim with SAG dates from June, 1996, which should have given Durkin ample time to respond and prepare her defense.
The defense Durkin would have presented at such an arbitration, Little told BSW/D-L, is that she never in fact received the letter terminating her as Donte Green's agent, and that neither she nor Leo Burnett could locate the Greens at the time of the reinstatement negotiation in February, 1995. While he admitted that the percentage she negotiated may not be kosher, Little claims that SAG's Chicago office authorized it, and that Durkin knows of other Chicago-based agents who negotiate as much 25 or 50 percent for themselves on reuse deals. Durkin and her family are originally from Chicago.
About Durkin's new business as a personal manager, for which she needs no license or franchise, Little raved, "It's going gangbusters. She's gotten a lot of funding and support from the business and talent community."
For her part, Donya Green would like to see some of those funds.
"It's not just the principle—Donte's in college and we could use the money," said Donya Green. "Any person who would steal from a child is pretty pathetic." With interest, the total owed by Durkin to Green comes to around $6,200.
Incidentally, Back Stage West was involved in the October arbitration proceedings on a separate claim against Durkin. As editor, I was called to testify about display ads for the acting school On-Camera L.A., which ran in the newspaper in 1995. Our records show that Debbie Durkin herself made the initial inquiry about ad rates—a crucial piece of evidence in a later investigation by Back Stage West reporter Scott Chernoff into allegations that Durkin had required prospective clients to attend expensive classes at On-Camera L.A., as well as roping them into a headshot kickback scam.
Chernoff's series, which ran 1/18/96, 4/11/96, 4/18/96, 4/25/96, 5/9/96, won Back Stage West the Donaldson Editorial Achievement Award from BSW's parent company, BPI Communications, Inc.