Gov't Threatens Suit Over 'Mission Impossible' Publicity Stunt

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - As Boston deals with the fallout of a terror scare triggered by an unconventional advertising campaign, a California newspaper and movie studio may face legal action after an effort to promote "Mission Impossible III" sparked a bomb scare last year.

In letters sent last week to the Los Angeles Times and Paramount Pictures, Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Kontos warned that the companies could face a federal lawsuit over a publicity stunt last May in which digital audio players were placed in 4,500 randomly selected newspaper dispensers in the area.

When newspaper buyers opened the boxes, the red plastic devices played the theme of the movie, which was slated to open in theaters the following week.

However, some customers thought the players were bombs and reported them to law enforcement officials.

Cybercast News Service broke the story of how the marketing campaign affected the Veterans Affairs Administration facility in the city, where a person saw the device in the newspaper dispenser, thought it was a bomb and called authorities.

After an inspection of the newspaper rack could not determine whether the device was explosive, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department bomb squad blew up the newspaper dispenser.

In the meantime, as many as 300 people - including about 50 patients - were evacuated from two floors of the building's west wing for almost two hours, which "severely disrupted" patient care, according to Darryl Blackwell, chief of police for the V.A.'s Greater Los Angeles Health Care System.

According to the Times, Mike LaPerruque - the newspaper's security manager - received reports of the bomb calls and notified law enforcement agencies around the city that the devices were not dangerous.

"With the wires leading to the micro-switch on the news rack doors, I can easily see how someone might have misconstrued it as an improvised explosive device," said LaPerruque, a retired Los Angeles sheriff's sergeant.

"The VA sustained damages as a result of the evacuation," Kontos noted in her letters to the Times and Paramount. "Our preliminary estimate of the VA's loss is $92,855.77."

Kontos also stated her office intends to recommend that the government sue the newspaper and the studio, because they acted "carelessly in executing the promotional campaign by planting a device that could be mistaken for a bomb in a United States government building post-9/11."

"The companies' imprudence was particularly egregious because the device was placed in a VA hospital, a building in which various medical procedures are regularly performed and care for war veterans - many of whom suffer from psychological disorders - is provided," she wrote.

Kontos informed the companies that all documentation and correspondence pertaining to the promotion is to be considered federal evidence, though she said her office was prepared "to provide you with the opportunity to resolve the allegations" without litigation.

A Paramount Pictures spokeswoman said Thursday the studio had no comment.

Word of the potential federal lawsuit came one day after the discovery of mysterious electronic devices in and around Boston caused a terror scare on Wednesday.

After the objects were discovered to be part of a "guerrilla marketing" campaign for the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" series on the Cartoon Network, Mayor Tom Menino threatened "to take any and all legal action" against the cable TV channel and its parent company, Turner Broadcasting, to recover the expense of responding to the situation, which is estimated at about $750,000.

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