Joe Francis Appeals Community Service Sentence

Michael Hayes
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Mantra Films, the company behind the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, has appealed a federal judge’s sentence imposing community service and a $1.6 million fine for violating 18 U.S.C. § 2257, the federal record-keeping law designed to keep adult content producers from using underage performers.

In a Dec. 13 hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak told company owner Joe Francis that he would add a community service component to the plea bargain in addition to the fine because he didn’t think a monetary settlement was punishment enough for encouraging inebriated 17-year-old girls to expose themselves for the “Girls Gone Wild” cameras.

Smoak ordered Francis and company officers Arthur Greenfield, Jeff Ginsberg and Scott Barbour to complete eight hours of community service each month for the next 30 months. But the judge gave Francis the option of “stepping up” by serving 16 hours per month, thereby relieving the others of their court imposed community service obligations.

Under the terms of the September plea bargain, which covers multiple jurisdictions, Mantra Films entered a guilty plea to 10 felony counts stemming from federal-record keeping violations and agreed to pay $1.6 million in fines.

MRA Holdings entered a deferred prosecution agreement at the same time and agreed to employ an independent monitor selected by the government to insure that Francis and his operations keep with their promise to comply with 2257 going forward.

Francis also was required to pay $500,000 out of his own pocket.

The appeal aims to knock out both the community service obligation as well as the size of the $1.6 million corporate fine, although no grounds for reducing the fine were given.

Florida-based 1st Amendment and criminal defense attorney Lawrence Walters told XBIZ the success of the appeal would come down to whether or not the plea bargain contemplated community service.

“It’s not unusual to see buyer’s remorse in plea deals,” Walters said. “Typically, a court will give the defendant a chance to back out if it plans on imposing an additional sentence. If the judge adds something else to the sentence that wasn’t in the plea bargain, the defendant usually has 30 days to appeal, but he’ll have to show that the sentence was illegal.”

Larry Simpson, who serves as local counsel for Mantra Films, said the community service component of the sentence would be a burden for the defendants, who live in California.

According to Walters, Francis’ decision to appeal in this case may be a poor choice given the risks and the relatively lenient sentence.

“Given the decades in jail that he could have faced, this is a bizarre choice,” Walters said. “It’s unlikely, but the appellate court could even impose a tougher penalty, so the decision to appeal is somewhat risky.”

Walters said few defendants succeed in overturning their sentences after a plea bargain has been reached.