Lawyer Charged with Ripping Off Ballet Dancers Union

ballet dancersLeonard Leibowitz built a reputation in music circles as a tough negotiator. He may need those bargaining skills in order to avoid a five-year prison sentence. The 70-year-old New York City lawyer on July 14 was arrested and charged in Lower Manhattan federal court with embezzling around $150,000 in funds from the Independent Artists of America, a union that represents dancers and stage managers with the American Ballet Theater. The dance company, which has an annual spring season at Lincoln Center, since has re-affiliated with its original union.

A ballet performance done right requires exacting detail honed by exhausting rehearsals. And the performers understandably want to be paid well. For any number of them around the country, Leonard Leibowitz, a brass-knuckles negotiator, was the man to see, someone who advocated the strike as a bargaining tool. “Sometimes you just have to strike to get their attention,” he said back in the Nineties during tense contract negotiations with the now-defunct Florida Philharmonic. During his 1983-96 stint representing performers with the New York City Opera, noted Washington National Opera Executive Director Mark Weinstein, he went through “four or five negotiations with, or rather against him.” Weinstein added: “The players always wanted him. He’s a fun person to be around. He was experienced.”

Apparently, he was also crooked. Back in 1994, several dozen performers with the American Ballet Theater asked Leibowitz to help form a new union, the Independent Artists of America, rather than stay with the American Guild of Musical Artists. He remained their lawyer until 2007. The alleged thefts started in 1997 when Leibowitz, claiming financial difficulties, asked a union official for an advance on his annual retainer, which at the time was $24,000 (later increased to $42,000). The union official loaned him the money, believing the advance was under $100,000. This would establish a pattern. During the next eight years, Leibowitz wrote more than $350,000 in checks to himself, his firm and his wife rather than accept his retainer. Evidence suggests he paid only some of the money back.

According to a 2003 audit by the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, the 1997 advance exceeded $100,000. The department demanded a formal loan agreement, something to which Leibowitz agreed. But in 2007, the new leadership of the Independent Artists of America discovered he still owed $150,000 of the $350,000 he’d taken out. What’s more, say prosecutors, the “loans” contained signatures forged by a union official at Leibowitz’s request. Leibowitz had no comment about the embezzlement charge. His lawyer, Stephen Flamhaft, remarked, “I think we will be able, after dialogue with the government, to resolve this.” The performers with the American Ballet Theater since have returned to their old union. Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, explained, “After it became clear that Leibowitz had taken from their treasury, they asked us to represent them.”