Spanish lawsuit threatens US ties

Two film producers, an American and a Spaniard, go on trial in Barcelona on Tuesday in a court case that could have serious consequences for commercial relations between Spain and the US.

John Rosalini, president of the Emmy award-winning Rosalini Film Productions of Chicago, and Jordi Albá of Think Big Productions of Barcelona have been charged with extortion in a case brought by the directors of the Barcelona Forum – a cultural entity owned by the city council of Barcelona, the regional government of Catalonia and the Spanish central government.

If found guilty, the filmmakers could be sentenced to up to 2½ years in jail.

The public prosecutor has not pressed charges against the two filmmakers, but in Spain – unlike the UK or US – private parties can sue in a criminal court if the complaint is upheld by an investigating judge.

The Forum spent more than €400m ($540m) organising a six-month cultural festival in Barcelona in 2004 – an event that was widely condemned as a flop and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Mr Rosalini and Mr Albá were among the artists commissioned by the Forum to produce content for the event.

The filmmakers’ alleged offence has been to seek payment for a film project that was cancelled by the Barcelona Forum without the customary kill fee. In April 2004, a US court in the state of Illinois ordered the Barcelona Forum to pay more than $4m in compensation to the filmmakers. When Messrs Rosalini and Albá, through their lawyers, Jones Day in Chicago, sought to enforce the Illinois judgment in Spain, they were accused of extortion.

The trial comes shortly before an expected official trip to Madrid by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state. Ms Rice has not yet confirmed her visit, having twice before cancelled engagements in Spain, but Spanish officials expect her to be in the city in the first week of June.

Spain and the US have big differences over Iraq and Cuba and how to engage with leftwing Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Relations are therefore distant.

The filmmakers’ case has become another thorn in a prickly relationship, as it has implications for US companies doing business in Spain. The US Commerce Department describes the plight of the filmmakers as “problematic”, as there is no US-Spain agreement on mutual recognition of legal judgments.

In its 2007 guide on doing business in Spain, the department warns: “Given the experience the embassy has had in attempting to assist the American citizen [Mr Rosalini], the embassy recommends that Americans who conclude contracts with Spanish entities specifying the US as the venue for adjudicating disputes also come to an agreement regarding how a possible US judgment will be executed in Spain.”

In Madrid, a spokeswoman for Joan Clos, the former mayor of Barcelona who is now the Spanish minister of industry and commerce, denied the filmmakers’ case was affecting relations between Spain and the US. She said the lawsuit against the filmmakers was unrelated to their attempts to recoup their investment in the film project.

But in Madrid, Mr Albá said the Forum lawsuit had ruined his career in Spain. “Most independent filmmakers rely on public subsidies to make their films,” he said in an interview. “When you challenge the government, as I had done, you become an outcast.”

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