The TV Column: Balloon couple pleads guilty; Jon Gosselin countersues TLC

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Richard and Mayumi Heene may get their ultimate publicity wish fulfilled, just in time for Christmas.

The Fort Collins, Colo., couple, who concocted a story about their 6-year-old son's death-defying flight in a homemade weather balloon, are set to be sentenced for the hoax two days before Christmas.

Given how completely the cable news networks, not to mention millions of viewers, got duped last month by the Heenes' camera-ready story about their adorable little son, Falcon -- and the annual news drought that takes hold just before Christmas -- it is extremely likely the couple's Dec. 23 sentencing will be telecast around the world by the same cable news networks.

The Heenes pleaded guilty Friday to staging the Balloon Boy hoax, about three weeks after Mayumi Heene told investigators she and her husband lied to authorities and knew their son was not in the balloon but safely stashed away at home. (We already suspected as much, since Falcon told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on international TV that he had hid in the family garage because his parents "said that we did this for a show," causing all hell to break loose.)

Mom and Dad ginned up the con game in hopes it would help them become stars of their own reality series. As their hoax unraveled, it was discovered that the Heenes had been developing a reality series about their family with RDF Media USA, the same company that produces "Wife Swap," on which the Heenes had appeared twice.

The judge at Friday's hearing told the doting parents that they may have to cough up some serious cash for various government agencies to cover the cost of the effort to "rescue" Falcon. That fateful day, the Heenes called 911, the Federal Aviation Administration (and a local TV news outlet) to report that their son was aboard the runaway balloon, causing authorities to shut down Denver International Airport -- ka-ching! -- and deploy National Guard helicopters in an attempt to pluck the balloon out of the air -- ka-ching!

Richard Heene pleaded guilty to attempting to influence a public servant, a felony. His wife pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false report to authorities. They agreed to the deal so that prosecutors would not try to have Mayumi, who is a Japanese citizen, deported if convicted of a felony.

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Jon Gosselin has gobsmacked the Discovery-owned cable network with a $5 million lawsuit, accusing it of violating Pennsylvania child-labor laws when it shot footage of his eight children for the reality series that made him a household name, "Jon & Kate Plus Eight."

The lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court -- but only after having been filed in the court of -- claims the Silver Spring-based TLC failed to get work permits for the kids.

Evidently, Mr. Gosselin figured out that children need work permits only after he milked the show for five seasons.

The aggrieved father's move is a countersuit: Last month, TLC sued Gosselin for allegedly breaching his contract with the cable network when he started getting paid to do interviews on celebrity suck-up shows and generally carrying on around the television firmament.

That suit, also filed in Circuit Court in Montgomery County, claims Gosselin did not meet the terms of his contract when he started popping up on other TV shows for pay and making unauthorized public disclosures -- like his salary, to CNN's Larry King.

Gosselin's attorneys contend that his pact with TLC was designed to take advantage of his inexperience in TV contract matters and that by trying to prevent him from exploring other on-air opportunities, because of his TLC contract, the cable network is denying him the right to earn a living as an "on-camera personality."

"I don't know what greater example there is of something against public policy than this case where in the workplace, babies -- because these kids were babies -- were taken advantage of by a multimedia, multinational corporate giant and conglomerate such as Discovery and its subsidiary TLC," Gosselin's attorney, Mark Jay Heller, told The TV Column.

TLC declined to comment.

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