Monday, March 26, 2007

Abate tells court: ICM too 'low rent'

Agency exec fires back: he was jealous of colleague.

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Josh Getlin, Times Staff Writer

March 26, 2007

NEW YORK--In the brutal courtroom clash between literary agent Richard Abate and talent agency ICM Monday, both sides accused the other of bad faith and corrupt motives. A decision in the closely watched case, in which ICM is trying to block Abate from jumping to the rival Endeavor Talent Agency, is expected within several days.

During a daylong hearing, in which U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure admonished both sides for making less than stellar arguments, the personal tensions and anger bubbling just beneath the surface erupted into view. ICM, which brought the action earlier this month, is seeking to bar Abate from doing any work or recruiting new clients for Endeavor until his original contract ends later this year.

The agency painted Abate as a dishonest, opportunistic agent, envious of a colleague's promotion. His attorneys, in turn, portrayed ICM as a money-losing company that was panicking over its pattern of losing high-priced agents to its rivals.

Abate, who spurned an ICM offer to renew his contract in February, testified that he had grown disenchanted with the large, bicoastal talent agency. He said he had approached the rival Endeavor agency to see if it was interested in beginning a New York book division, but insisted he had every intention of honoring his contract with ICM until it expired.

On several occasions, however, Abate could not remember key details about his job-hunting discussions on the west coast. This drew a tongue-lashing from Leisure, who said: "Your lack of memory [over details] 30-60 days ago disturbs me. You have to be candid. You're wasting my time. You're hurting your own position."

But the judge also told ICM it had failed to prove its key contention--that Abate's departure would cause the agency irreparable harm, and that the agent had pirated away key inside information about deals and literary clients.

"You're not even close to showing a basis for a preliminary injunction," he told ICM's attorneys. From that point, both sides began angrily criticizing each other.

Abate said repeatedly that he had not stolen any high-priced secrets from ICM; he said he had been fired on Feb. 9 for having the temerity to turn down the agency's three-year extension of his contract. The real reason they were suing him, he alleged, is because of a "desperation on their part, that ICM has had a brain drain for the last ten years," in which a series of powerful agents have left the company.

He added that he was "extremely concerned about the company's finances," and noted that a colleague had recently asked him why ICM-which recently located its offices in midtown Manhattan-had moved to such "a low-rent neighborhood." He charged that the case had not been settled out of court because "the LA office (of ICM) is in an acrimonious war with Endeavor, and they chose to sue me in a vindictive manner because they could not get enough money out of Endeavor."

Firing back, ICM's attorneys said Abate had cleverly concealed his plans to leave the agency and jump ship to Endeavor, even when colleagues asked him pointedly about his plans. The most searing testimony came from Esther Newberg, a prominent agent who runs ICM's literary division. She offered a tart rebuttal to Abate's description of her as one of his closest and dearest friends at the agency.

"I did view him as my friend," she said, pointedly speaking in the past tense. When she had previously asked Abate what else he might want to do, if he left ICM, she recalled: "The word 'Endeavor' never came up. He said, 'Don't worry. I wouldn't go to the William Morris Agency.' There was no talk of Endeavor, a major competitor with no book department," she continued. "And we all know what's in the contract he signed. You don't go to a competitor that's trying to form a book division."

A key reason Abate decided to leave, she suggested, was that he was envious of another colleague, agent Sloan Harris, who had recently won a prized promotion to help Newberg run ICM's literary division. "I still feel betrayed by Mr. Abate, then and now," Newberg testified. "He was jealous that a man only four years older than him but with a stunning client list was being elevated." She added that Abate "didn't have the judgment" to properly do that kind of job at ICM.

The two sides couldn't even agree on who exactly said what on the morning of Abate's abrupt departure from ICM's offices, after he told officials he was leaving.

Harris and Newberg recalled that they were stunned by the news but tried to be polite. Newberg said she gave Abate a baseball as a parting gift, since they both enjoyed the sport. Harris recalled that he uttered an expletive when Abate said he was jumping to Endeavor, but quickly composed himself and wished him well.

Abate recalled a more emotional scene, including a hug with Newberg, whom he viewed as a mentor. But those feelings quickly gave way to the realization that he had become persona non grata at ICM, the agent said. Both Newberg and Harris advised him to exit the midtown building swiftly because the news of his departure would not play well on the west coast: "When LA wakes up," he recalled them saying, "they're going to be really mad at you."