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August 19, 2008 1:10 PM

Girls Gone Wild Founder Fights Back Against Florida Town, Plaintiffs

Posted by Zach Lowe

The founder of "Girls Gone Wild" plans to release a lawsuit today, demanding the nullification of a settlement he entered into last year with the families of four girls who were 17 years old when "Girls" filmed them performing sex acts in Panama City, Fla., in 2003.

In the suit, to be filed in Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, "Girls" founder Joe Francis will claim he settled only because a federal judge bullied him into it by jailing him for contempt of court when settlement talks weren't going well.

Francis and his lawyers, Robert Barnes and Robert Bernhoft of the Bernoft Law Firm in Milwaukee, claim U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak held Francis in contempt of court to force a settlement that would benefit the plaintiffs attorneys -- Smoak's alleged close friends at Harrison, Sale, McCloy, Duncan & Jackson in Panama City.

Francis contacted the Bernhoft firm after reading about their representation of actor Wesley Snipes in a tax evasion case, Barnes says.

Partners Franklin Harrison and D. Ross McCloy, Jr. did not return calls seeking comment. They are not named as defendants in the suit, Barnes says, nor is Smoak.

Instead, the complaint will name the girls' families, the original plaintiffs, charging them with failing to disclose Smoak's relationship with their attorneys, Barnes says.

Smoak originally held Francis in contempt when plaintiffs' attorneys, including D. Ross McCloy, told Smoak in open court that Francis had threatened them during confidential mediation proceedings, according to this recap from the Panama City News Herald.

Smoak said Francis could avoid jail time only if he settled the case that day; he backed down, though he ultimately jailed Francis after plaintiffs attorneys complained that talks again had broken down and Francis missed a deadline to surrender on contempt charges.

Francis spent 11 months in jail before settling with the families for an undisclosed amount. Francis later pleaded guilty to criminal charges of child abuse for filming the underage girls even though court records showed they lied about their age in convincing Francis' cameraman to film them.

Francis will file separate claims against various Panama City officials related to illegal searches of Francis' condominium and plane in 2003. He is seeking $300 million in the claims. A local judge threw out all evidence from the searches in 2006 because of flaws in the search warrant, according to the New Herald. For now, Francis' team has filed only administrative claims against the officials, a group that includes police officers and prosecutors. Should the city decide not to settle, the team will file a lawsuit in Florida trial court, Barnes says.

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