Golden Globe awards tarnished by allegations of corruption

Publicist accuses organisers of accepting cash and gifts from studios in exchange for votes

And the winner is...caught up in an ugly scandal. On the eve of their big night, the organisers of the Golden Globes are being sued by their outgoing publicist, who says the event is being used to solicit bribes, bungs and financial kickbacks.

Michael Russell has filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles alleging that he was improperly sacked after almost two decades for attempting to root out corrupt practices within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which controls the 68-year-old event.

He claims that HFPA members routinely accept money, holidays, and gifts from film studios in exchange for nominating their movies for Golden Globes. The organisation also secretly sells media credentials and space on their red carpet for profit, he adds.

During his 17 years in the job, Russell says he was frequently required to "bury" bad stories about these and other unethical practices. The HFPA has even made money by charging fees to producers who wish to "lobby" its members to vote for their films, his suit claims.

The actions "perpetrate a fraud on the public, to which HFPA holds itself out as a charitable organisation dedicated to recognising excellence in film," says Russell. "HFPA members abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements which amount to a 'payola' scheme."

Russell is claiming $2m in damages. The HFPA, which has 81 members and makes roughly $6m profit each year from the event, has not so far commented on his claims.

The allegations of "unethical and potentially illegal activities" which "threaten the credibility of the Golden Globes" could have hardly come at a more awkward time for Hollywood's second-most-watched awards show.

Stars are gathering in Los Angeles for a weekend of red carpet celebrations ahead of tomorrow night's event, which pits The Social Network against the British film The King's Speech for top honours, and is widely expected to see UK actors Colin Firth and Christian Bale honoured. Success is considered crucial in building momentum going into next month's Oscars ceremony. And the exposure it brings can add tens of millions of dollars to a film's box-office receipts. But Hollywood insiders increasingly view the Globes with cynicism. This year's event has been mired in controversy since before Christmas, when it was announced that Burlesque, a commercial and critical flop, had been nominated as the Best Comedy or Musical.

Days later, it emerged that Sony, the studio behind Burlesque, had recently flown HFPA members – an opaque group of 81 occasional journalists, some of whom are not even foreign – to Las Vegas. Their all-expenses-paid trip included luxury hotel accommodation, free meals and a private concert performed by Burlesque's star, Cher.

Russell's lawsuit suggests that questionable practices extend beyond the mere voting process, however. It also accuses the HFPA of selling media credentials to attend the event to the highest bidder, meaning that many legitimate news organisations are prevented from gaining access.

The Independent, which is among the titles which do not pay to be given space on a red carpet, has always had applications for its reporters to attend the Golden Globes declined by organisers, without explanation.

Allegations of corruption do at least follow in a grand tradition. In 1999, Sharon Stone presented each HFPA member with a gold watch days before they received voting forms. She was duly nominated for the Best Actress award.

In 1981, the unknown Pia Zadora won a Best Newcomer award for her role in Butterfly, a film which had been universally derided. It later emerged that the movie's producer, who happened to be Zadora's husband, had flown the entire HFPA to Las Vegas for a weekend, immediately before they voted.

Aside from Mr Russell's complaint, the HFPA's lawyers must also soon respond to a lawsuit from Dick Clark Productions, which produces the annual show. It is suing for breach of contract in relation to a $26m deal NBC signed to televise the event from 2012 to 2018.