Officials of Avco Embassy Pictures Corp. have been accused of rigging bids to give select theater owners in the nation's Bible Belt exclusive showings of the highly publicized movie "Born Again' - the saga of Watergate figure Charles Colson's religious conversion.
There was no indication that Colson had any knowledge of the alleged bidding fraud, and when reached by telephone he said "I know nothing about this and would be surprised if it was true."
Avco corporate officials also expressed doubt about the charges,ut acknowledged that the matter was being investigated by the parent company.
At least one employe of Avco Embassy, which is distributing "Born Again," has submitted allegations to top management of the parent Avco Corp. that senior officials of Avco Embassy were rigging the traditional secret bidding process in at least two southern cities, Atlanta and Winston-Salem, N.C.
Although local officials of Avco in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., refused to discuss any of the allegations, several employes of the firm consented to give interviews to the Post with a promise of confidentiality.
The employes questioned also alleged that senior company officials had "interceded" in the bidding process in the two cities in question. They said the Avco Embassy officials ordered local employes to give certain theater owners a belated chance to top any of the already submitted "secret" bids.
Various theater chains or owners in each market bid on certain films that are expected to do well. "Born Again" is expected by industry sources to fare particularly well in Bible Belt areas in the South.
But in documents submitted by an employe to Avco Corp. President George Hogeman, and made available to the Washington Post by corporate sources, two specific incidents of alleged "bid-rigging" were described.
The first incident involved theater bidding for "Born Again" in Winston Salem, N.C. According to the documents submitted to Hogeman, an official from Stewart & Everett, a local exhibitor, was allegedly told by Avco Embassy General Sales Manager Herb Robinson that he could get what is known as a "last look" at all of the bids submitted by competitors also seeking to show the film.
According to statements attributed to Avco's branch manager in Charlotte, and its division manager in Atlanta, Robinson told Jim Gilland, an official of Stewart & Everett, that once he saw the bids, he would be allowed to submit his own bid - after the official deadline, but predated to appear to have met the bidding deadline - and win the picture for an exclusive showing in the Reynolda Cinema I theater.
Avco's Robinson also reportedly told Avco's Atlanta division manager to pass the word to the branch manager in Charlotte that Gilland's new bid should be accepted. Gilland has not responded to telephone calls from The Washington Post.
Robinson, reached by telephone in New York, denied all of the charges, and said that such activity "is against the policy of this company.Everything we have is documented."
Robinson said he was surprised to hear about the charges, since "we probably get fewer bids on all the films we bid all year than Warner Bros. gets in one film. We wish we had that kind of product."
But, he acknowledged that "Born Again" has generated interest, particularly in the South.
In the second incident the Loews chain in Atlanta was reportedly treated in the same manner as Stewart of Everett in North Carolina.
In that case, according to the documents, Loews was also allowed to bid on Aug. 3, 1978, when official bidding was closed on July 27. According to the documents given Avco management, Robinson was again named as the Avco official alleged to have ordered the same division manager to allow Loews the "late look," and subsequent back-dated bid.
It is that Atlanta division manager who has complained to Avco president Hogeman.
That manager, William Lau, refused to discuss the matter with the Post, but in his letter to Hogeman he claims that the tactics used by his superiors are "unnecessary and counter-productive."
In a telephone interview, Avco president Hogeman acknowledged that "those allegations have been made to me," but added that "I'm reasonably satisfied that they are not true."
"But since I just heard about the charges a very few days ago," Hogeman said, "we will continue our investigation until I am sure. I'm not going to be satisfied until I'm absolutely sure the allegations are not true."
Hogeman said such bid rigging would be contrary to company policy.
Legal experts say they are uncertain as to what, if any, laws are violated by the alleged activities. "There may be antitrust, commercial bribery or mail fraud implications," said one attorney, "but it would depend upon the motivation behind such activity."
Avco employes interviewed by the Post were unable to attribute any definite motivation for such activity on the part of Robinson or his superior, Executive Vice President Bob Rehme, a recently hired official who they linked to the activities.
But several employes interviewed said they were aware of the Winston-Salem and Atlanta situations, and similar activities that my have occurred in Cincinnati.
Rehme characterized the charges of bid rigging as "allegations from a disgruntled employe. The letter (detailing the charges) came as a total shock to me and everyone at Avco Embassy Pictures. It is the policy of this company that no one is empowered to rig a bid or do anything illegal. Our records are open and we have nothing to hide."
Rehme said Avco Corp. has sent Senior Vice President Don Farrar to check out the charges. Rehme also said that Avco Embassy employes met with Hogeman and other corporate officials in New York on Tuesday.
As for Cincinnati, Rehme acknowledged that his wife was co-owner of a building there with Phil Boracks, owner of several theaters and a former partner of Rehme. But Rehme said he felt there was no conflict involved.