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The Feds' secret war on video porn

The Feds’ Secret War on Video Porn — The FBI heads to America’s heartland in a crusade to eliminate X-rated video movies

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In Tulsa, Okla., it’s not easy to find X-rated videos. Even at the all-night Whittier Newsstand on North Lewis Avenue, which is known for its selection of nudie magazines, the sexiest movies for sale are the soft-core sort that appear on cable TV. But next month, Tulsa will become the battlefield in a major new Federal war against pornography. The first courtroom trial in a nationwide campaign to prosecute video pornographers is scheduled to begin Jan. 22 in the U.S. District Court in Tulsa.

The Tulsa case culminated a year of quiet work by the FBI and the Justice Department, which are launching the most aggressive attack against X-rated cassettes in the 14-year history of video porn. The opening shot was fired last January when FBI agents, posing as video store owners from Broken Arrow, Okla., just outside Tulsa, ordered copies of the X-rated Sorority Pink, Sorority Pink II,Backdoor Lust, and Awesome at a Las Vegas video convention. Once the cassettes were delivered to Broken Arrow, the California-based distributor, Cal Vista Ltd., and two of its officers, Jack Gallagher and Sidney Niekerk, were slapped with a five-count felony indictment, including interstate transportation of obscene material and conspiracy. And lest anyone mistake the legal action for an isolated instance, U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh issued a statement saying, ”This indictment stakes out our commitment to aggressively pursue large-scale producers of illegal hard-core pornography…in every state in the nation.”

Over the past year, the FBI has been warming up for such a pursuit. The Bureau has conducted nearly 30 searches against hard-core video producers, and undercover agents have ordered tapes from addresses in Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and other states with large conservative populations. Most legal authorities agree that obscenity convictions are far easier to come by in the Bible Belt than in Los Angeles, where most porn companies are based, and the firms involved could face the added handicap of being indicted in several different districts at once. Department of Justice spokesman Douglas Tillett denies that these actions mean that the feds are ”venue shopping” for hospitable places to prosecute. ”We have cases pending in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, too,” he says.

Porn producers, however, see the Tulsa case as high-handed entrapment. ”To my knowledge, Cal Vista hadn’t been sending any material to Oklahoma,” says defendant Jack Gallagher’s attorney, Michael Mayock. ”A management decision had been made not to ship to that area, but the agents exerted great pressure on Cal Vista clerks to make the shipments.” (According to motions filed by Mayock, the agents were turned down when they tried to order the tapes at the convention, but when they called the company later, an employee complied.)

The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, Tony Graham, confirms that FBI agents ordered and received the tapes, and he sees nothing wrong with that. ”Let’s say somebody is dealing cocaine, but he’s never distributed it in Oklahoma,” says Graham. ”If an FBI agent gets him to send it here and I catch him and I indict him, then I’ve done a good job.”

Because Cal Vista is the only company indicted so far, Mayock and others sympathetic to the porn producers speculate that the ”Sorority Pink case” is a litmus test for the new sting operation. ”It’s all a perversion of law enforcement,” says Barry Lynn, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. ”There isn’t a problem in the community, but the Justice Department spends resources going after them there anyway. Frequently the defendant will agree to a fine or to get out of the business completely to avoid court costs and the risk of losing.”

Though porn videos are enormously popular — generating an estimated $665 million a year in rentals, they now tie with children’s titles as the most lucrative nontheatrical tapes, according to Video Store magazine — federal prosecution is likely to have a profound effect on business-as-usual. Receiving several simultaneous indictments could easily put an X-rated-video company out of business — whether or not it’s ever found guilty. According to Mayock, total defense costs for the Cal Vista case alone could reach $250,000 before appeal. ”They intend to find districts to try these cases where distributors have to travel and spend a lot of money,” he says. ”It’s a concerted effort to make things inconvenient and expensive.”

Veteran adult film director Paul Thomas (The Masseuse) says the clampdown has already bruised the porn industry. ”This has a lot of people worried, because you never know what’s going to happen. Films are really getting bad because people don’t want to spend money banking on the future,” says Thomas. ”I hope to be out of the business in a year, maybe give this new NC-17 rating a try.”