Distributor pleads guilty to obscenity but says it was an accident

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A Marshall company that distributes DVDs pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal obscenity count in U.S. District Court even though it claimed the offense occurred accidentally and was not intentional.

Right Ascension Inc., doing business as Adult DVD Empire, pleaded guilty to mailing obscene matter from May 29, 2007, when federal prosecutors said the company mailed four obscene pornographic videos from its Warrendale warehouse to undercover FBI agents in Erie.

But the company's attorney, Gary Zimmerman, told the court Thursday that the company, which distributes both mainstream and adult videos, did not purposely break the law.

"This isn't a company that's in the business of trying to push the envelope of the First Amendment," Mr. Zimmerman said.

Instead, his client, which employs 72 people, had strict policies in place in which adult movies, which could be considered obscene, would be reviewed by screeners.

If it was deemed obscene under the law -- meaning, under contemporary community standards, it is patently offensive, appeals only to prurient interests and lacks any serious artistic, literary, social or political value -- the company would send it back to the studios and refuse to distribute it.

"The films distributed in this case slipped through those guidelines," Mr. Zimmerman said. "These films negligently went out."

Headded, though, that the law doesn't require the distribution to be intentional.

Mr. Zimmerman told U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti that his client cooperated with the investigation from the start and has had no trouble since the violation occurred. Further, Mr. Zimmerman said, Right Ascension has nearly eliminated the category of pornography it distributes that includes sadomasochism.

"They're termed in the business as being kind of vanilla," he said.

But Pamela Satterfield, an attorney with the Department of Justice's Obscenity Task Force, said the videos sold by the company were not "your run-of-the-mill porn."

The four films in question, including titles such as "A Bounty of Pain" and "Shattering Krystal," featured torture and bondage, Ms. Satterfield said.

Though the company could have faced a fine of more than $500,000, the government agreed to reduce that amount to $75,000 because of the small profit the company made from the sale of the DVDs -- less than $500.

Judge Conti also ordered Right Ascension to remain on probation for two years.

John M. D'Arcangelo, owner and chief executive officer of the company, appeared in court to enter the plea.

In addition to the adult films the company distributes, it also is one of the top distributors of mainstream DVDs in the country, Mr. Zimmerman said.

Since the criminal investigation began, Mr. Zimmerman said, the company has gone through extensive retraining and revised its distribution guidelines.

"The way they're running the business, this should never happen again," he said.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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