Jan. 16, 2008 -- ABC News has learned that a group of former federal drug enforcement agents has filed a class-action lawsuit against NBC Universal today, asserting they were defamed by the blockbuster flick "American Gangster."
As the final credits roll on the flick starring Denzel Washington as Harlem drug thug Frank Lucas, a screen appears that states three-quarters of the drug enforcement agents assigned to New York were convicted as a result of Lucas' cooperation with "outcast cop" Richie Roberts, portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie.
There were no such convictions, Drug Enforcement Administration officials told ABC News. But the agency had no immediate reaction when told of the lawsuit.
The agents are also seeking a restraining order against further distribution of the movie, $55 million in damages and punitive damages and any profits from a box-office gross that so far has exceeded about $130 million.
The suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, charges that "the defamation involved the defendant NBC Universal, through its Universal Studios, falsely communicating, in writing, to millions of people in a motion picture called American Gangster that three-quarters of New York City's DEA, from approximately 1973 through approximately 1985, were convicted criminals."
According to former U.S. attorney Dominic Amorosa, who prosecuted Lucas and his cohorts in the federal case and now represents the aggrieved former narcs, the assertion that Lucas' cooperation with "outcast cop" Richie Roberts "led to convictions of three-quarters of the New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency" is baseless and "impugns and damages the reputations of hundreds of honest, decent and courageous agents."
NBC Universal declined to comment in early December when ABC News first reported on the dispute between the former agents and the Hollywood studio.
In a letter to Amoroso dated Dec. 7, replying to his demand that the movie studio "retract and correct" its statements, David Burg, NBC Universal's senior vice president for litigation, said, "The film in no way charges or even insinuates wrongdoing on the part of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Thus, we must respectfully deny the claim of your client and other former federal DEA agents."
Amoroso answers this with the lawsuit:
"American Gangster falsely represents that Lucas not onlycooperated with Roberts in investigating corrupt law enforcement officers, but...falsely states as a fact that this 'collaboration led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency.' This legend is false, defamatory and libelous per se. No such thing ever occurred. Not a single agent of New York City's DEA, or any other law enforcement officer, was convicted of anything based upon the so-called 'collaboration' of Lucas and Roberts. Nor was a single agent of New York City's DEA or officer of the NYPD convicted in any case or investigation involving Frank Lucas whether based upon a collaboration of Lucas and Roberts or any other resource."
Among the narcs Amorosa represents is Gregory Korniloff, the Drug Enforcement Administration case agent on Lucas.
"After risking life and limb for two and a half years in this investigation, we are portrayed as a gang of corrupt hoodlums," Korniloff told ABC News in December. "Just on the faces of it, there were about 300 agents in New York at the time," Korniloff says. "Leaving the theater you get the impression that the movie audience comes to believe we are corrupt."
"Universal Pictures denies the allegations in the class-action lawsuit filed today on behalf of former federal narcotics agents. American Gangster does not defame these or any federal agents. The law enforcement officers portrayed in the film are identified as members of the New York City Police Department. The end legend specifically refers to members of "New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency" -- not the federal Drug Enforcement Administration where the plaintiffs formerly worked. We believe the lawsuit is entirely without merit," Universal said in a written statement.
This post has been updated.