Joe Francis: 'The Only Criminals Are Those Persecuting Me'

Joe Francis built a multimillion dollar business literally off the backs (and fronts) of seminaked women.

"We go out and we view girls going wild," he said, calling it "fun."

Francis doesn't believe that his product should necessarily be considered porn. "You know what I like to call it?" he said. "European television. It's naked girls having fun."

Francis has made more than $100 million selling footage of young women "having fun" exposing themselves. And it's given him an enviable lifestyle. But earlier this year, the party came to a crashing halt -- Joe Francis is now in jail.

"I think this is an abuse of the criminal justice system," Francis said. "And frankly, I just didn't think the criminal justice system could be used to get revenge on someone."

Francis' fall from soft-porn CEO to prisoner number 07-12000 started as he prepared for the biggest event in the history of "Girls Gone Wild." It was due to take place during Spring Break 2003 in Panama City, Fla. At the time, former police chief Lee Sullivan was the mayor of Panama City, a community he described as devout, rural and "Southern, in the truest sense of the word."

"The challenge of having visitors is simply this: You set parameters, then you require everyone to stay around those parameters," Sullivan said. "And those that can't can either leave or go to jail."

'Illegal and Nasty'

Sullivan did not believe the "Girls Gone Wild" production team would abide by those parameters.

"Here comes a company that is going to put on a show and basically turn our community into a theater for some soft porn movie," he said. "They are very good at getting young people that have been drinking to do things that are, at best, risque. But more appropriately, illegal and nasty."

"A pretty whacky mayor came out against me and said, you know, 'you're not welcome and if you come here you'll be arrested. You're scum-sucking trash,'" countered Francis.

Francis filed and won a lawsuit allowing him to roll his trucks into town, but it set the scene for an ugly conflict. As film crews set about capturing spring breakers, the police were watching closely. Then, just two days after "Girls Gone Wild" started filming, police raided Francis' production locations.

"I was actually driving back from the gym and I parked. And then some guy said, 'Are you Joe Francis?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And they started running after me," he said.

Francis said he wasn't told what was going on "until later that night when I rolled into jail. They were just piling us all up in the holding cells. I'm like, 'What the hell happened?' And I found out that everything had all been taken," he said.

Francis' private jet had been impounded and his were cars taken away for forensic examination. He was charged with 71 separate offenses, from racketeering to prostitution and drug trafficking. Florida state attorney Steve Meadows said the number of charges "was based upon the review of the evidence that was seized."

When asked if every charge was a viable count, Meadows said "absolutely."

But within weeks, the indictment was torn apart by Judge Deedee Costello, who found that investigators had acted "with the intent to deceive the court, or with reckless disregard as to the truth."

And she singled out one particular police officer: Chief Investigator Richard Bagwell.

When asked if he regarded Bagwell as a competent investigator, Meadows said, "I'm not gonna answer that question. … He's not employed by me. And I'm not gonna comment." Meadows also wouldn't say whether he was confident in Bagwell's abilities.

Days after Costello's condemnation, the number of charges was reduced from 71 to just eight.

The Shower Scene

Francis felt vindicated, but his celebrations were premature. It soon emerged that two girls in Panama City had lied about their ages to a "Girls Gone Wild" cameraman. They'd been paid to perform sex acts in a hotel bathroom and they were just 17. Francis was now charged with child prostitution.

When "Girls Gone Wild" arrived in Panama City in 2003, Franics held his usual briefing with the crews.

"I had a meeting with all the cameramen and just gave my policy discussion -- ID's, releases. That's my mantra," Francis said.

All performers must sign a release giving "Girls Gone Wild" the rights to sell the footage. Consent and identification that confirms the girls are 18 is often captured on tape, but two girls lied to a cameraman filming a shower scene at the Chateau Hotel. The girls were actually 17, and according to the state attorney, the burden for ensuring they're of legal age rests solely with the filmmakers. It's known as strict liability, and is a reading of the law which Francis contests.

"I don't believe they look 18," said Meadows. "And the impression is just what they are: a couple of high school girls who left high school class just a few hours before and were brought in by Mr. Francis and his crew into a setting in which they were extremely uncomfortable."

Meadows showed "Nightline" a portion of the atape, evidence that cannot be used against Francis because the court found it was obtained illegally.

"It's child pornography," Meadows said of the footage. "And we don't allow that to be possessed in Florida."

When asked if he agreed with Meadows' characterization of the tape, Francis said, "No," but when pressed he said, "I haven't seen the tape…that tape has been characterized to me very differently."

During filming the cameraman offers increasing amounts of money, from $50 to $400, to get the 17-year-olds to perform certain explicit acts. On two occasions the girls say they don't want to do what's being asked.

"This whole thing wouldn't have happened if it was me in charge," Francis said. He said "it's not policy" for girls to receive a rising fee dependant on the performance, but said they are paid, "just like Steven Spielberg pays an actor to be in a movie. Yes, 'Girls Gone Wild' pays some of its performers to be in their movies."

And does Girls Gone Wild pay more for more adventurous performances?

"Just like Playboy would pay more for a more adventurous performer, probably, you know 'Girls Gone Wild' would, too," Francis said.

Question of Culpability

Even if the girls were induced to perform, Francis maintains he wasn't there.

"You can see Joe Francis, you can see they are standing outside the bathroom," said Meadows.

Francis maintains that was "prior to the filming. I was in that room for merely a few moments and then I left the room."

"I was in another room of a suite," he said. "And then I left. And I was not there and didn't even know the filming was happening. Never paid attention to the filming happening."

So he is culpable?

"He is culpable because you can't escape culpability by telling a cameraman, 'I want you to do this,'" said Meadows. "And you go in there with these young girls and you film these types of activity. And I'm gonna stand right outside the door here. And we'll talk and converse and if an issue comes up, speak to me. But this is what I want you to do. That's two or more individuals combining to complete a plan of criminal conduct -- the very basis of the conspiracy for what he is charged."

Since his disastrous trip to Panama City, Francis' companies have been hit with a series of lawsuits. In July 2004 he paid $1.1 million to settle charges of unauthorized shipping and billing. And in April of this year he was indicted on two separate counts of tax evasion by a federal grand jury. That's how he got from jail in Panama City to federal lockdown in Reno, Nevada. Francis says he is innocent of these charges as well, and that he doesn't have a problem obeying the law.

"Here's where I have a problem," he said. "I have a problem being an easy target. I have a problem with being a likeable person, that lawyers think 'I'll get this guy in front of a jury and people will be jealous of him.' There doesn't have to be an underlying offense or crime."

'They Are Out to Get You'

Has he become paranoid?

"The funny thing is, like, I never used to be that person and my lawyers had to sit me down and say, 'You know what Joe, be paranoid because they are out to get you.'"

Francis only remains in Reno because he has refused to pay bail, because once he is released there, he will be remanded back into the custody of the Panama City authorities.

"I'd go back to Panama City where they are out to get me," he said. "And that's not paranoid."

"Do I want to see him stand to what he did in my community? Yes sir, I do," said Sullivan. "And if he's guilty, do I want to see him punished? Yes sir, I do. The only time I would welcome Joe Francis into my community would be to see him go to trial. And subsequently go to jail."

"I have the same view of Mr. Francis as any other criminal defendant," said Meadows, saying that he would wait "as long as it takes."

When asked if he had anything to say to Sullivan or Meadows, Francis said, "That's a very, very good question. But I would say they're not going to get away with it. He knows what he's doing is wrong. He knows they'll never hold up. But I believe that he should watch his actions very closely. And the only people who are criminals here are those that are persecuting me."