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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2002 / 18 Tishrei, 5763

Lenore Skenazy

Skenazy
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Reality hits Mickey


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Call it the case of the Pooh bear vs. the pooh-bah. Winnie-the-Pooh's owners are taking Michael Eisner et al. to court.

Eisner could end up looking like Kenneth Lay in mouse ears. When it comes to corporate malfeasance, maybe it's a big world after all.

So how did a tubby little cubby like Pooh find himself in what is shaping up to be an industry-shaking, shareholder-outraging, billion-dollar lawsuit?

Simple. He sat there looking cute. So cute that Disney slapped him and the Tigger/Roo/Rabbit gang onto every possible kiddie product, from bibs to booties to juice boxes and cereal. His Honey Pot ride became the toast of Disney Japan. His Uno cards became a fixture in the folds of our couches. Pooh became, in fact, Disney's biggest moneymaking character of all time, easily dwarfing Mickey.

Now, in the words of Los Angeles Magazine, "Pooh is a player."

All this would be more than fine by Pooh's owners - a family named Slesinger that bought the U.S. and Canadian rights from author A.A. Milne in the 1930s - except for one small sticking point: The Slesingers believe Disney has been screwing them out of millions in royalties for the past 20 years. They also believe that Disney shredded much of the evidence that would prove this.

Alas for Disney, the judge sided with Pooh's parents in a preliminary part of the trial. Last year, he ordered Disney to pay a $90,000 fine for destroying hundreds of boxes of documents, Enron-style, including one marked, "Winnie-the-Pooh Legal Problems."

If the Slesingers win the whole shebang, says their lawyer, Bert Fields, they could take Pooh and his business away from Disney.

Still, this might have simply remained great fodder for The Hollywood Reporter if it weren't for the fact that America has grown angry over the past few years. Stockholders are up in arms. If "Greed is good" was the mantra for the '80s, now the mantra is, "Your right to greed ends where my greed begins."

Thanks to the misdeeds at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and ImClone and a host of other scandals, more and more average folk are awakening to the discrepancy between corporate insiders, who know what's really going on, and dumb old shareholders who get stuck holding the bag.

Now class-action suits are being filed against Disney by stockholders who charge that Eisner and his cronies knew about the potentially staggering Pooh lawsuit but kept them in the dark.

As evidence, the shareholders point out that though the Slesinger case has been dragging on for 12 years, it was sealed at Disney's request until the beginning of this year. That's when the company finally had to file papers acknowledging that the case could cost it several hundred million dollars - not to mention the rights to Pooh.

Since that info came to light, the company's stock has plummeted nearly 40%.

"We believe these lawsuits have no merit," says Michelle Bergman, director of corporate communications for Disney.

And maybe she's right. After all, Disney is a multifaceted, $25 billion company. Pooh is, according to Disney, just $1 billion of it. Moreover, in his 18 years at the helm, Eisner took Disney from a barely profitable also-ran to many years as a money-minting behemoth. Maybe he can do it again.

If he gets that chance, however, this time he will have to be more open. Corporations can no longer keep any information from stockholders without expecting a revolt. In a climate like this, no one looks innocent anymore.

Not even Mickey.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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