Who really generated the Milli Vanilli lawsuits? -- The faux-duo's fans get a refund, but lawyers taste bigger bucks

Since Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan admitted last November that we weren’t hearing their voices on the Milli Vanilli album Girl You Know It’s True, 26 class-action consumer-fraud suits have been filed against the group and its record company, the Bertelsmann Music Group’s Arista Records. On Aug. 28, a judge in Chicago’s Cook County Circuit Court became the first to accept a proposed settlement offer from BMG. Pending a public hearing and final approval from the judge, each of the 7 million U.S. consumers who bought the album will be entitled to cash rebates of $3 per CD, $2 per tape or LP, or $1 per single. Anyone who attended a Milli Vanilli concert (and can provide proof) will be entitled to 5 percent of the ticket price, and those who bought T-shirts or other merchandise will be listed as contributors to BMG’s promised $250,000 donation to various charities.

BMG’s initial proposal, which would have given disgruntled Girl buyers rebates of $1 to $3 on future Arista purchases, was rejected by the court on Aug. 12 because, said Judge Thomas J. O’Brien, the plan required ”a consumer who has been allegedly deceived…to purchase more of the alleged deceiver’s merchandise.” In addition, the settlement may put an end to the other Milli Vanilli class-action suits waiting to be heard around the country. (One of them, in Philadelphia, has already been denied class-action status by a federal judge.)

It’s hard to stand up for dubious talents like Milli Vanilli’s or for BMG’s initial proposal, which amounted to offering diners a free meal at a restaurant where they had contracted botulism. But are the lawsuits a case of infuriated fans fighting back or simply of lawyers plying their trade? Larry D. Drury, one of four attorneys involved in the Chicago case, says his suit is meant to ”represent all persons across the country. The average guy can’t afford to prosecute or doesn’t have time.” Drury’s plaintiffs are two middle-aged Chicago-area businessmen — an unlikely demographic for Milli Vanilli fans. ”You’d be surprised who listens to music,” says Drury, who says he’s glad the revised BMG offer has been accepted.

Yet the Los Angeles Times reports that even though the Milli Vanilli album sold 10 million copies worldwide, only 100 customers have returned their albums and requested refunds since the hoax was revealed last year. And BMG spokeswoman Trish Heimers says the company has received only ”a handful” of complaints from record buyers. Even if that figure amounts to more than Heimers will allow, the words ”public outcry” still do not come to mind.

So who may gain from the legal entanglements? Although the presiding judge determines the amount of lawyer compensation in class-action suits (often based on an hourly-rate bill submitted by the attorneys), the Chicago lawyers in particular stand to gain substantial recompense. (Counters Drury, ”At the end, sure, we’d like to get paid.”) Arista may also come out of the ordeal in good shape. Attorney Stan Soocher, editor of the newsletter Entertainment Law & Finance, says, ”They’re not admitting to anything. They’re just saying, ‘Hey, we’re good guys, and we want to give something back.’ It’s a winning proposition.” BMG’s Heimers says the company is ”pleased” about the settlement acceptance and ready should millions of consumers mail in whatever the court specifies as proof of purchase (possibly a bar code from the album) for a rebate. ”We’re prepared, but we don’t think that many people feel aggrieved. There are a lot of people who feel it is a great record and enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, the dancer/lip-synchers at the center of the storm, who now use the moniker ”Rob and Fab,” are recording a new album (most likely to be released by an independent label, a far cry from big-league Arista). The duo, who mock their Milli past in a recent Care Free sugarless gum commercial, are also looking to turn their story into a movie. And about those steaming-mad consumers? Several million of them now stand to have a few extra dollars in their pockets because of the Chicago decision. But the business end of the music business will manage just fine too — they’ve been playing that old song since long before Rob and Fab ever signed on the dotted line.