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Lead Balloon Ep. 6 - HBO's McMillion$: The PR Crises Behind the Hit Docu-Series

Updated: Mar 25

With Directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, as well as PR Agency Owner John Boyanoski



Everybody remembers the McDonald's Monopoly sweepstakes.


But until HBO's McMillion$ came out, most folks didn't realize that the reason it suddenly vanished in 2001 was because it was rigged from the start.


In the hit series, directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte tell the fantastic story with panache and aplomb of how McDonald's was scammed for $24 million.


But in this podcast, they examine the story through a PR and marketing lens, explaining how McDonald's and the FBI tried to save face in the midst of disastrous circumstances. And, PR agency owner John Boyanoski shares his tale from the day when the FBI visited his newspaper office to avert a McMillion$ PR disaster.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

If you haven't yet seen HBO's McMillions, well, you should. It tells the tale of one of the biggest, most high profile scams in American history involving public relations debacles for two huge American institutions, McDonald's and the FBI.


John Boyanoski:

After a couple paragraphs, this doesn't read like the normal FBI press release. When I swung around in my chair, and I'll never forget this, I'm looking at my boss, David, saying, "David, do you know where this came from?" He's like, "Is it a good story?" I'm like, "You take a look at it." And he starts looking and his eyes kind of widen, and he goes, "Yeah, I don't think we're supposed to have this."


Dusty Weis:

Now, I would be a total jerk if I spoiled this six part docuseries for you, so I'm not going to do that. The show is about the cops and robbers angle of the story and I could not possibly do a better job of telling it than directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte did. Rather, we're going to talk about the public relations battles that were fought behind the scenes of what could have been an epic disaster for both McDonald's and the FBI. And, I'm going to do that with the help of series creators, James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, as well as a PR professional who you'll recognize from the show, John Boyanoski.


If you haven't yet seen the show, it'll be an edifying introduction to a fascinating story and if you have seen the show it'll answer some of those burning PR questions that I'm sure ran through your mind while you watched it, like why in the world would McDonald's choose to cooperate with a documentary about how they got scammed for $24 million?


I'm Dusty Weis. From Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR marketing and branding nightmares and the well meaning communications professionals who lived it.


As someone who nerds out about these kinds of stories, it's really a lot of fun for me to see a tale of public relations disaster get as much press as McMillions has. But, I will note that here on Lead Balloon this is a thing that we do on a monthly basis. So, if you haven't yet, take this moment to subscribe to our podcast feed. I'd also appreciate a five star rating in your favorite podcast app or any comments you'd care to leave. I'm also posting interview videos and pictures from these tales on my social media, so follow Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for all those sorts of extra details.


So, this McMillions show on HBO. All six episodes are out now, which is great because you're going to want to binge watch this if you haven't yet and, let's be honest, with social distancing going on you've probably got the time. It's a unique and super fun take on documentary storytelling, but also the most fascinating story that you've never heard before. Everybody's heard about the annual McDonald's Monopoly prize giveaway that ran during the '90s, but why did it suddenly vanish? Well...


Agent Doug Matthews:

The McDonald's Monopoly game was fixed.


Clip:

McDonald's Monopoly game gave millions of people a chance to win.


Agent Doug Matthews:

But, from 1989 to 2001 there were almost no legitimate million dollar winners.


Clip:

The FBI told us the game pieces are being stolen.


Clip:

McDonald's was shocked.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, a lot of us in the PR and marketing world watched this show from the perspective of holy cow, what a debacle that must've been behind the scenes. And so, to tell the PR story behind the story, so to speak, I reached out to the directors, James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, who spoke to me from their coronavirus quarantine in L.A.


Brian Lazarte:

You know, this has been a wild ride. I mean, we've been working on this together since 2017 and James came across this in 2011, so it's a long time coming to have it all out there, to have the reaction from people. It's fun because people would watch episode one thinking that this was just going to be some fun, funny comedy, and then realized by episode three that it was far more involved. It's been a great experience.


Dusty Weis:

I've got to say, this is a podcast about epic disasters in PR and marketing, and it's pretty safe to say that for both McDonald's and the FBI, this is a story where those organizations kind of teetered on the edge of disaster for a while there. What's crazy about it to me is that so few people knew this story. Like you guys, I'm a '90s kid who was obsessed with the McDonald's Monopoly sweepstakes when I was growing up, but the news broke that this Jerry Jacobson had been stealing the winning pieces and scammed McDonald's out of 24 million bucks, and then a few days later 9-11 happened and everything about the McDonald's scam was buried under the constant press of tragic news that followed.


James, how did you get turned onto this story and what made you drag Brian into it as well?



James Lee Hernandez:

It started oh so long ago. It feels like an eon ago now. It was in 2012, I was laying in bed just going through Reddit, as I will do sometimes to unwind before I fall asleep.


Dusty Weis:

As one is wont to do, yeah.


James Lee Hernandez:

Yeah. I was scrolling through and in between the funny cat videos and other random articles there was a TIL, today I learned nobody really won the McDonald's Monopoly game. I grew up in the '90s, so I was absolutely obsessed with that game. My first job when I turned 16 was at McDonald's, during the time of all this stuff going on.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, I hope you've got pictures.


James Lee Hernandez:

You know, one of the days we actually shot in a real McDonald's that still looked like it was a '90s design inside and I wore my original uniform shirt the day we shot there.


Dusty Weis:

That didn't trigger like PTSD in you?


James Lee Hernandez:

No, actually it's been so long now that it was actually kind of fun. Although, the sound of the fry machine going off with the actual, basically hearing that beep, like gives me crazy flashbacks. I looked, tapped on the article, read it. It was just a small local Jacksonville newspaper article, really not much detail because it was only talking about the first wave of arrests. I had to know more. I looked into it and was surprised to not really find that much about it.


Over the next year or so I just kept digging into it whenever I could, either bored at work or just in general on my own time. I eventually put a freedom of information request in with the U.S. government because I wanted to know way more detail than I was able to find. It took over three years for that to go through and then once it did go through I was able to find out the FBI agents and federal prosecutor who worked the case, and reached out to them. They said this is their favorite case and no one has ever talked to them about it before.


At that point, I called up Brian, who I'd known for a while, who has a great history in documentary film making, and I was like, "Man, I think I got something big here. Let's grab lunch and talk about it."


Dusty Weis:

So, they tell you in film school that a good story needs stakes, conflict, suspense, but also characters, and this story has it all. You've got your downtrodden heroes, your megalomaniacs, organization crime, zany FBI agents. At what point in your filmmaking journey together did you start to realize that you had hit the jackpot when it comes to characters?


Brian Lazarte:

We didn't really think of it like we'd hit the jackpot. Our approach to how we worked with everybody who came onboard, who shared their point of view in the story, was probably a bit more relaxed than we've done in past instances or past projects that we've been a part of. And so, we approached it from a different angle, and hopefully that helped allow these characters to really pop. We did find that they were interesting and that they were good story tellers. Of course, yeah, I mean, those are all the ingredients that you need for a good series. We did find ourselves in that situation many times where we're like, "Are we gonna find a dud, like someone we just like are so bored with?," but it wasn't the case.


You know, episode one we came out of the gate with the point of view from the FBI. We really wanted you to experience like that feeling of you, as the audience, almost being part of the investigation. Figuring things out as they were figuring things out. Because, when you play along and you have that procedural element to follow, it's engaging. You want to know how is this going to lead to this next clue. Once we flipped that, you know, in episode two we start introducing the criminal component to it, it just expanded out the world. You can't really predict what you're going to find when you go out sometimes. Hopefully, we just took advantage of every great moment and found a way to work it into the story.


Dusty Weis:

Whenever I tell somebody about this show, if they've seen it before the first thing that they bring up is Agent Doug Matthews.


Agent Doug Matthews:

I see this note on the desk, McDonald's Monopoly fraud, and I go, "Give me that damn thing." Because, I'm bored to death of this healthcare garbage, right? It's important, but I was ready to move on.


Dusty Weis:

I don't know if you guys have seen the FX cartoon, Archer...


Archer:

I can't hear you over the sound of my deafening awesomeness.


Dusty Weis:

But, this guy is secret agent Sterling Archer in the flesh, just all up and down.


Agent Doug Matthews:

Man, undercover is awesome.


Dusty Weis:

And, I look at him as a storyteller, and I say, "Man, this guy is a great character. He's a goldmine." But then, I look at him as someone who's also a PR practitioner, and if I'm the stuffy uptight sort, I say, "Uh, this guy's a little bit of a loose cannon. I'm not sure that I want him out there unfiltered with this documentary crew." So, how did you, as a documentary filmmaker, James, get the FBI to let this guy off his leash and do these interviews with you?


James Lee Hernandez:

It was, honestly, it was a war of attrition basically, of just going... There are so many steps that you have to go through to get cooperation from the FBI and I went through them all. I was patient and waited for about three and a half years for the freedom of information request to go through and then even more time to reach out to FBI headquarters to get permission to talk to the people involved. Doug Matthews is the only active agent left out of everyone. Talking to everyone that was retired was helpful, but Doug was obviously one of the key figures.


It was all about relationship building. Building a relationship with Mark Devereaux and Tom Kinnear and Chris Graham, the FBI agents and federal prosecutor that worked with Doug for years. Having them vouch for me and what I'm doing was also very helpful as well, so it really is... One big lesson from this entire project is it's about relationship building. It's not just... These people aren't robots. They want to know that they can trust you and actually like being around you.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I don't know if you guys saw this, but after the first couple episodes came out one of the search terms that was trending on Google was, "Where is Doug Matthews now?" As you mentioned, he's the only agent in the show that hasn't retired yet. He's still out there, but, Brian, is there any light that you can shed on that burning question? What's he up to these days?


Brian Lazarte:

Well, you know, the FBI likes to keep their secrets pretty close, as to his whereabouts and what undercover operation he might be up to next, so I'm not sure if we can disclose that. He's keeping busy. I meant that's... The creativity that he used when he was a young, hungry, rookie agent is no different than how he approaches cases today, from everything that we can tell. His energy level certainly hasn't seemed to wane in the last 20 years. That energy is infectious, so we have to imagine that the rest of his department, the other FBI agents working closely with him, love to be around him as well.


Dusty Weis:

I can only imagine what it must be like to work with a guy like that.


James Lee Hernandez:

I do know that they've started calling him Hollywood now in his office.


Dusty Weis:

As a former reporter, having worked around cops a lot and the occasional FBI agent, I know how much those guys like to pick on each other over stuff like this. But, you got the sense, you said, from all these folks, that they really wanted to talk to you guys. Why do you think that was? Were they just so keen on this story that they couldn't wait to share it with the world?


James Lee Hernandez:

Well, part of it is the fact that there are so many things, really most of the things, that FBI agents and federal prosecutors do that they can't talk about. Either they are classified and they're just very sensitive subjects that can't be talked about or, especially for white collar, a lot of what they do can tend to be somewhat boring where they're looking at bank records, they're looking at tax statements. They're doing things like that, but it's not the most thrilling situation. There are a lot of times cases based off of historical records.


The interesting thing with this is they could actually talk about it, but it also used so many different investigative techniques. It had that historical aspect where they're looking at people who had won in the past, but then they had an active crime happening. It was basically like a drug case and they were following a product that was being moved. So, to be able to really show the full scope of the investigative power of the FBI, it was really exciting for them.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, one of my favorite moments in the show comes right as the FBI is getting set to take down this criminal enterprise, but before the sting can happen they accidentally leak the whole thing to a newspaper reporter in South Carolina. So, coming up after the break...


John Boyanoski:

This was an active investigation that just ended up in our fax machine and, of course, me being the young reporter, I wanted to write a story.


Dusty Weis:

That newspaper reporter, now a PR agency owner, tells the story of the time that the FBI paid a little visit to his office to avert a PR disaster.


And then, later, what about McDonald's? How did they approach the public embarrassment of having been scammed out of $24 million over the course of a decade? That's all coming up here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Ballon and I'm Dusty Weis. HBO's McMillions documentary is a fascinating story of organized crime, undercover intrigue, and $24 million in fraud. But also, a story of extreme public relations crises. John Boyanoski is the founder of Complete PR, a full service agency in Greenville, South Carolina. In 2001, in the days before an FBI sting took down the McMillion's fraud ring, John was working as a cops and courts reporter at The Greenville News. When a strange fax landed on his desk one day, it was the entire FBI case summary and it was not supposed to be made public.


John Boyanoski:

After a couple of paragraphs, this doesn't read like a normal FBI press release because there's no arrests named at first. There's names everywhere, but then I start reading and they're talking about heavy surveillance. I remember that directly and relaying phone conversations. I start thinking this is like no FBI release I've ever seen. I start flipping through page after page of it. I'm seeing person X was seen at the corner of this and this, driving this car.


The way our newsroom was set up, we had these kind of cubicles and I could... I swung around in my chair, and I'll never forget this, looking at my boss, David, and saying, "David, do you know where this came from?" He goes, "Yeah, it's from the fax machine. I put it on your desk this morning." I said, "Did you get a chance to read it?" He's like, "No." I could see him starting to look at me like this isn't normal. John Boyanoski doesn't ask questions like this, he just puts his head down and starts writing it. And he's like, "Is it a good story?" I'm like, "You need to take a look at it." And he gets... Same like me, starts looking at it and his eyes kind of widen, and he goes, "Yeah, I don't think we're supposed to have this." We bring it to our managing editor and we kind of quickly realize that this was an active investigation that just ended up in our fax machine.


Dusty Weis:

The McMillions documentary just kind of glosses over how this fax accidentally got sent to you, but I think it's a point worth fleshing out. Your paper was on the fax machine speed dial at the FBI office in Atlanta and someone at the FBI just mistakenly mashed that button.


John Boyanoski:

That's the leading theory. There's a couple theories on that. One is... You never know. The FBI, I don't think, ever really figured it out. The one theory is that yes, we were getting media all the time from them, so I'm sure they would have, instead of typing out our nine digit code every time they had a Greenville News button. I'm sure instead of trying to hit Greenville FBI it went to Greenville News instead of Greenville FBI. Another theory that was told to us was that at some point a few years before me there had been another reporter, some young cub reporter, who was covering the FBI and his name was the same as an agent on the case.


Dusty Weis:

Okay.


John Boyanoski:

And so, when whoever was in the Atlanta office hits, let's say Agent X, well that's the same name as the reporter, so it went to the Greenville News. Two theories we've heard. It's the little mystery in the case that no one ever quite knew how it happened and we didn't find out that day. I just literally never asked until the McMillions came up and the HBO guys came and talked to me. It is one of the little mysteries of how it ended up with us. People keep asking, "Why was the Greenville News even on a speed dial?" Well, it's hard to believe, before e-mail became a prevalent thing that's how information was sent over, fax machines. It seems archaic, but it was only like 20 years ago.


Dusty Weis:

And, I'm so glad... Just personally speaking here as a public relations professional, I'm so glad at this juncture that the fax machine has been relegated to the realm of the dinosaurs because it was a heinous and terrible way to transmit information.


John Boyanoski:

Oh, it was terrible.


Dusty Weis:

Some of the folks in the show hint that they think that it was FBI agent Doug Matthews who mistakenly sent the fax. I take it you don't know or you don't want to speculate at this point?


John Boyanoski:

I have no idea. I couldn't even tell you. The people I knew at the office in Greenville were the ones I knew, so I couldn't even tell you. No idea.


Dusty Weis:

So, you've got this thing in your hands and it's very clearly not a press release. It's very clearly about an active investigation. Like you, I'm a PR guy with a background as a news reporter and I've been on both sides of this situation like you describe here, where there's this big scoop and it's gotten into the wild before it was supposed to, but there are also some very real repercussions of running with it. So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say there was a very quick, very intense closed door meeting in your editor's office. How did that go?


John Boyanoski:

Yeah, it's interesting. We debated for about 30 minutes, several of us, myself and several editors, about what to do with it. Of course, me being the young reporter, I wanted to write a story. You know, active investigation of the McDonald's Monopoly game by the FBI. There was stuff going on and it's all centered in South Carolina, as far as we could tell. I just kind of... It quickly went from like ooh this is a really big story to we didn't get this ourselves. This just fell in our laps. This isn't really something we did journalism for.


And so, the great thing, and as I said at the time, I was kind of upset because I was like oh here's my big break and this is my big story. But, my editors were 100% right. We didn't need to write the story because we were going to be jeopardizing an active investigation, not because someone told us about it. It wasn't like McDonald's called us or we had an agent who said here's the break on the story. We found it by accident.


Dusty Weis:

I feel like news reporters catch a bad rap especially in the movies and TV, as being these sort of like self-serving one dimensional characters where they're only driven by oh I got to get the scoop, I got to get the scoop. Get the big story, put it out there. In a case like this, I think it really drives home how many different factors go into the decision of publish or don't publish.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

Even if that discussion seldom gets observed by the public.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah, and that's a great question and a great observation because we're only going back 19 years ago now, barely 20 years, two decades. Newsrooms have changed a lot and the media has changed a lot. You know, today it's how quickly can you Tweet out the wrong information. The safeguards have even gotten tougher to get into. That's the one thing about the Greenville News is we had those safeguards in place and there was, for lack of a PR firm term, there was a crisis point. I think Chris knew that in his head and was like okay, here's how we vet these things. But you're right, news people do get a bad rap. I think it is something to show, is that yes there is integrity in this field.


Dusty Weis:

Because, as you already noted, had you gone ahead and published this story... I mean, this was just a day or two before the planned FBI sting to catch these guys. That would've been completely just blown away.


John Boyanoski:

Yes, yes, and what would've that done? You know, there's no reason.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah. As a reporter, ruining a criminal sting is not something you feel good about when actual bad people are being taken off the street.


Do you ever think, though, what might've happened to you personally if you had published this story?


John Boyanoski:

Oh, that's a great and interesting question. I don't think about it, believe it or not. Maybe I would've gotten more attention as a reporter and maybe left Greenville, but the thing is I started to love Greenville and I probably wouldn't have left. Eventually I met my wife, I have two kids, I have a nice home here. I'm very happy having her and those two kids in my life, and our cat and our dog, and so I think if I'd left Greenville that would've never happened. So, from that perspective I'm very happy that the story didn't get published because I wouldn't have been here to meet my wife. I know it sounds pokey and corny, but that's kind of who I am.


Dusty Weis:

That's very sweet because I was driving at something completely different. Speaking from experience here, I can say that there are repercussions when you cross a federal agency as a news reporter. Once upon a time I found myself in some hot water with the TSA and Homeland Security, and that is not a story that I think I'm going to be sharing anytime soon.


John Boyanoski:

Well, it sounds like I need to do a podcast and interview you about that because that sounds interesting.


Dusty Weis:

Well, you've got my number. You know where to find me. So, you guys make the decision not to run with this story before you ever talked to the FBI. And, I think it was the right decision. But, then there's this whole other process of calling up the FBI and saying, "Hey guys, you sent us this, but I don't think you meant to." They don't know at that juncture that you had not decided to publish, so did you try to use that leverage and how so?


John Boyanoski:

I wasn't privy to the phone call. That was our managing editor, Chris Weston, who did the phone call for that. Chris, a little background, he had been in newspapers in South Carolina for 25 years at that point. He was probably one of the most respected editors and reporters in the state. He had this great voice and I always said he sounded like Charles Bronson when he wanted to, but made Charles Bronson sound like he's singing Ava Maria. He could just go in there... I'm sure they were like, "What's going on? Why is Chris Weston calling us from Greenville News?" He wasn't a guy who made social phone calls.


I think he just laid it out and was like, "Look, we have this information, we're not supposed to have it, we want to give it back to you, but we need something." You know? Do we get a better story down the road? Do we get the exclusive? I'm pretty sure Chris asked for an exclusive. They were like, "Look, we can't give you the day before because we're going to make all these arrests, but we'll give you a little bit more access." I think that was the general deal, that we would get some photos as they walked some people into the courthouse and maybe a little more detail about the actual investigation. So, that was that, but their big thing was, "Okay, we need... The FBI was like, "We're coming over there right now to get this document."


Dusty Weis:

Like right that afternoon?


John Boyanoski:

Yes. That was gone by lunchtime.


You know, honestly, it had been stapled when it came off our fax machine and one of the editors decided, "Oh no, we better unstaple this," so it didn't look like we had been walking around with a copy of this for three or four days. So, when they unstapled it, of course, there was two holes in there where they were missing.


Dusty Weis:

Oh no.


John Boyanoski:

So, they restapled it so it doesn't look like anything. According to my one editor, who was probably a yarn spinner, but there was probably some truth in it, he said within five minutes after the FBI agents picked up the document from Chris, thanked him, and left to go, they were back saying "Where's the other copies?" They were like, "What do you mean?" They were like, "This has been stapled, unstapled, and stapled again."


You know, that was a good leap of faith of the FBI and us. It's like we gave them the fax, they believed us, the Greenville News, that we didn't have 15 copies sitting in a vault somewhere downstairs.


Dusty Weis:

It's funny to me because having dealt with law enforcement, I know that they can come across kind of strong sometimes.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

And that's more true than ever when they're feeling weak or like they've got egg on their face. They can just come in and just overcompensate. And so, when you talk about them like pulling out the magnifying glass and checking the staples, that is immediately what popped into my mind.


John Boyanoski:

It could've been or I think it might've been more that they were so egg on their face, like let's make sure nothing goes wrong.


Dusty Weis:

In the name of trading stories and keeping it fair here, it does remind me of a time when I was a reporter. I got a tip from a rival law enforcement agency that some prison guards at the local super max were kind of stealing prescription pain killers from the inmates.


John Boyanoski:

Interesting.


Dusty Weis:

Sort of like a three for you, one, two, three for me situation. The warden really didn't want me to run with the story, but I told him I had him dead to rights and so I'm like, "I want to get your comments on the record on this." And he was like, "All right. Come on down to the prison, 10 a.m." First thing when I show up, three prison deputies walk up and they give me the wand, and they put all my stuff through the x-ray machine, give me the pat down, and it was like, it was stern, right?


I'm like, okay this is a prison. This is sort of the standard operating procedure. They're going to make sure I'm not bringing in contraband, whatever. Then they drag me down this long hall along the block and open up this big metal door and say, "The warden will meet you in here in a second." It's one of those four concrete walls, no windows, iron table bolted to the floor situations. It was an interrogation room essentially.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

And I'm sitting here waiting behind this big metal door, and nothing. Ten minutes go by, 15 minutes go by, 20 minutes go by. Finally, after a half hour the warden opens up the big metal door, cachung, pulls it open, pulls this steel chair back, drags it across the concrete floor, sits down on the chair backwards, his arms crossed in front of him, and says, "So, you've got some questions for me?" It was a total power play.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

He was just flexing those muscles to say, "Look here Scooter, we're still in charge." So, it's not fun to be tangled up on the wrong side of a law enforcement agency like that.


We should note that you stayed in the news game for a few more years and then you transitioned into a public relations career in Greenville. When did you first learn that this old story from your past was about to become really relevant again and how did that make you feel?


John Boyanoski:

That was... Okay, here's a funny story. October 2018, I remember it vividly because I was getting my oil changed, I got a phone call from California and I'm like okay this is a spam call, so I just let it go. A voicemail pops up and I listen to it. It's Jimmy Hernandez from the show, who is one of the producer/directors. He just has this message, he's like hey, you know, I'm calling, we're doing a show. He was like this could be for HBO, we don't have everything signed yet, but I want to talk about if you remember this FBI case with McDonald's. I call him back and I'm like, "Yeah, I remember." We chat for a few minutes and he's like, "Can you tell me about the facts?" I go into full PR guy mode because at this point I hadn't talked about this in years. While there wasn't like a blood oath with the FBI, there was a general agreement of like just don't talk about it. You know? Don't make-


Dusty Weis:

Right. Don't get egg on our face.


John Boyanoski:

Yeah. And so, I never brought it up, never thought anything about it. I'm like, "Um, facts? What are you talking about?" He's like, "Well, the FBI told me..." I'm like, "Who at the FBI told you?" It was Dwight Baker. I said, "You know, I'm going to have to call you back on this." I said, "You don't happen to have Dwight Baker's phone number?" He goes, "Yeah, here it is." I call Dwight Baker, because my thing is I had held this for so long I didn't want to be the like oh here's the guy who showed up on HBO and threw the FBI under the bus.


Luckily, Dwight Baker called me back and he was like, "Yeah, no. We told them about it. They know about it. We actually gave them your name." Which kind of scared me there was a file with my name somewhere in the FBI somewhere with, you know, John Boyanoski. I hope it's a good file. So, they gave me the answers and I called Jimmy back. I'm like, "Yep, I can talk to you about the facts. It did happen." About two days later they were in my office in Greenville and filming.


Dusty Weis:

Looking back at all of this now, how do you look at it differently now that instead of being a news guy you're in a PR role?


John Boyanoski:

Oh man.


Dusty Weis:

Because it is a public relations story of epic proportions.


John Boyanoski:

It definitely is. I can say this, having been on this side of it, I couldn't imagine the PR fallout. You know, we've sent the wrong e-mails a couple times. You know, you type in one name and someone gets in there. That happens. But, faxing your whole investigation, the PR fallout if that had happened would've been monumental. I will say this, the funny thing is, you know, we do a lot of crisis communications and we have a secrecy. We don't tell people what we've learned and we sign confidentiality forms. So, when Joe is like, "Well, now you know you can definitely trust John Boyanoski. He can keep a secret for 19 years for no reason whatsoever."


Dusty Weis:

That's a pretty good badge of honor right there. I have to say that one of the most incredible things about this documentary to me now is the way that they got these big huge institutions like McDonald's and the FBI to participate. Speaking as a former reporter and an occasional documentarian, calling up somebody like McDonald's and being like, "Hey, we're doing a story that's not necessarily flattering to you, but do you want to provide us unfettered access to all the people that played a role in it?" is a top sell. How do you think that James Lee Hernandez incentivized these organizations to participate in this documentary?


John Boyanoski:

You know, that's a great question. This is speculative. I believe... I think he was just dogged about it.


Dusty Weis:

I put that same question to directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte. Just how enthusiastic was McDonald's to be the subject of an HBO documentary?


Brian Lazarte:

They did not want to... I mean, so James actually first reached out and there was, at least an initial conversation that seemed like okay maybe this can go somewhere, and literally the next day, it was an official denial.


James Lee Hernandez:

This is in summer 2017, like within the same week that I talked to Mark Devereaux and Tom Kinnear and Chris Graham and Doug Matthews.


Dusty Weis:

All the guys from the FBI.


Brian Lazarte:

Right. Yeah, for the very first time. It was like the seed of the project. I think this was even prior to us sitting down for lunch. And so, you know, maybe eight months go by, nine months after we got the denial, that we decided to reach back out. We wrote them a letter and then followed up with them, and said, "Look, you know, we realize that you guys don't want to be a part of it, but hear us out. You know, understand that this is what the FBI's point of view is, the FBI is talking about you guys. Just meet with us and, you know, we'll take it from there."


And so, they agreed to a sit down meeting. We flew up to Chicago and met with every C level exec in one room. Amy Murray was there, who at the time had celebrity status in our minds. They were open to it, but one of the very first questions that they asked, because Mark Wahlberg is one of our producers, executive producers on the series, was, "Is this Mark Wahlberg's secret plan to get our secret sauce?"


We at least felt like they had a good sense of humor and they were open to hearing us out. They said that they'll think about it. They were going to regroup and they'd let us know. A month goes by, two months goes by, they have a reorganization in the higher ups-


James Lee Hernandez:

In the C level ranks, yeah.


Brian Lazarte:

Exactly. And then, ultimately, you know, we just... We said like, "Guys, if we're going to do it, now's the time because the show is coming out," and they said, "Okay." We set a date and we made it happen. We actually felt like it was a good move for them to make and it was very much in line with what they did with the FBI back then. They didn't have to help the FBI. Hopefully the people who are listening at this point have actually watched at least the first few episodes in the series-


Dusty Weis:

If you haven't yet, do it.


Brian Lazarte:

Yeah. The FBI asked McDonald's to run a game again, the final game, so that they could catch who was behind it, who was in the act. McDonald's did not have to do that. They could've very easily just said, "You know what guys? We're just going to close up shop. This is the end of the McDonald's Monopoly promotional games and the American public doesn't know it. They don't ever have to know that this was ever rigged." They decided not to do that. They felt like it was ethically the right thing to do, to actually catch who was behind this and to find out how far back it went so that they could actually do something about it. For us, we just felt like we wanted them to participate in the documentary series. They didn't have to do it, but ethically they felt like it was important for them to share their side of the story.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and from a public relations standpoint they're able to come off, in the documentary, as heroes of a sort. This is a thing that I say until I'm blue in the face, but as an institution like McDonald's you have more power to protect your reputation by cooperating with documentarians, with journalists, than by running away from them. What do you think about that, James?


James Lee Hernandez:

Oh, absolutely. It is a crappy thing in general, but silence really gives the presumption of guilt. If we do this thing and they don't talk, all of a sudden you start to think these questions. People will start asking, well why didn't they participate? What did they have to hide? Whether they had something like that or not. From their perspective, McDonald's is one of the most fiercely protected companies of their own brand. They really successfully aligned themselves with their customers and their marketing is so good, growing up McDonald's is part of your family. It was a treat no matter what class rank you were. And so, it's understandable that they would want to try to protect themselves and it's much easier to say nothing than to try and explain it, but to us it was we never looked at it as any sort of hit piece.


We knew that they were a victim of this, that it was something that was happening outside of their walls that they didn't know about. So, when we met with them we told them we want you to tell your story, this isn't Super Size Me or anything like that. We're not going to try and do some crazy left turn and talk about how cholesterol is bad for you. We just want people to look at you and think like man, normally a corporation always err on the side of what's better financially and your company went completely against the grain on that and did what they felt was best for the customers, knowing that they're a target if this goes south.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and between us too, I think they might've had another motive for cooperating because I'll tell you this, in telling your story you got to use all sorts of really cool old vintage footage from those '90s McDonald's TV commercials. I'm not going to lie, it kind of left me Jonesing for a Big Mac a lot more than I have in a really long time.


Brian Lazarte:

We promise that was not the intention, nor did we ever promise that would actually be the effect. Yeah, I mean, those commercials are... I mean, you can watch them on YouTube, many of them.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, they're fun.


Brian Lazarte:

But yeah, they-


Dusty Weis:

And so over the top.


Brian Lazarte:

They do take you back.


Dusty Weis:

I want to take a minute to celebrate someone who I think is one of the unsung heroes of the documentary, and that's Amy Murray, the McDonald's marketing manager who wound up in the center of this zany FBI sting to catch the scammers. On the one hand you've got a guy like Doug Matthews who was so stoked to go undercover as a film crew and tape segments from these scammers, and then she just seemed so mortified and overwhelmed to be a part of it, and yet she went through with it. She did it because it was the right thing to do. Did you get a sense, in talking to her, what makes her tick? What was going through her mind while all this happened?


Brian Lazarte:

She's got a deep history with McDonald's. In fact, in our companion podcast series that we did we included a deleted scene where she tells us how her father was actually the one who created the Ronald McDonald House. You know, she started with McDonald's as an intern and has been there for well over 20 years. At that time she felt this like incredible betrayal for something that was so beloved and something that she was so proud of. The way that she put it to us was, "What's the fastest way that we can make this wrong a right?"


Dusty Weis:

One other thing that I did want to know, the HBO series podcast is a thing now. They did one for Chernobyl, which I was obsessed with, they did Watchmen, and now you guys did one for McMillions. What does HBO like and what do you guys like about having a podcast as a means for your viewers to dig in even deeper with these shows that they love?


James Lee Hernandez:

We absolutely love it. It was something that we had discussed early on because... We originally had five episodes, eventually had shown HBO that we needed six, and even with six episodes there were so many interesting stories that we just couldn't fit within the body of the show. And so, we had broached that idea very early on. Once Chernobyl came out with theirs and Watchmen came out with theirs, we were really excited, like "Okay, cool. There's a precedent for this now." They had not done it for a documentary yet, but we talked with them, we pitched the entire idea of how it would different and what more it could add to the show.


Dusty Weis:

So, you guys went to them and said we want this.


James Lee Hernandez:

Yeah.


Brian Lazarte:

Yeah.


James Lee Hernandez:

And that's the great thing about HBO, is that they are extremely artist friendly. They are open to any zany ideas that we have and have many great ideas themselves, so they were really open to it. We showed the roadmap of how the show would work and they ended up agreeing. We were able to do it and were really excited about it because it allowed us to tell these stories, but also at the same time it was a fun thing for Brian and I to do because we had never done a podcast before.


Brian Lazarte:

I think that had we not done it, as well, we would've felt like gosh, you know, where would we have put all these great little stories and moments that we couldn't capture within the series? And, doing further interviews with some of our key subjects really allowed for their characters to be further explained and it was a great experience.


Dusty Weis:

Brian, I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that you in the past were involved with another one of my favorite documentary projects of all time, the Foo Fighters Sonic Highway series on HBO. What was that like to work on? Did you get to meet Dave Grohl?


Brian Lazarte:

I did get to met Dave Grohl and he's like exactly how you would imagine him to be. He's basically like the rockstar version of Doug Matthews. He's got this, you know, youthful energy, enthusiasm and just, it's infectious, you know, the moment he walks into the room. There's nothing pretentious about him, like he doesn't, you know, carry himself in that rockstar bravado. He's an awesome, awesome dude. And, in a lot of ways, I mean, that was an HBO project, but sort of in that HBO spirit he was very supportive of creative ideas of the team, everybody who was working with him, and he really gave everyone that freedom to do what they needed to do for their project.


Dusty Weis:

That makes me so happy to hear. That's fantastic. Well, I know we're short on time. I just want to say what an absolute pleasure it's been to speak with the two of you. I think people hear docuseries and some folks get really turned off by that, but what you guys have created is not this stuffy thing at all. It's fun, it's flashy, there are parts that play like a heist movie, and it's just, it's my favorite thing this year. James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, co-creators of McMillions, thanks for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast.


James Lee Hernandez:

Thanks for having us.


Brian Lazarte:

Thank you so much.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks are also due to Taylor James and Mace Meeks at 42West for getting me in touch with James and Brian at HBO. Check out all six episodes of McMillions streaming on HBO, and make sure you check out the McMillions podcast for even more in depth insights into this wacky story. Thanks also to John Boyanoski for sharing his story. And, a very specific thanks for nothing to the PR team at McDonald's, who didn't just deny my request to talk to Amy Murray, they ignored it completely. Like I told James and Brian, you're always better off working with a documentarian than running away from them, and as a for instance, if McDonald's had worked with me on this episode they would've been within my rights to ask me not to run with this clip.


James Lee Hernandez:

This isn't Super Size Me or anything like that. We're not going to do some crazy left turn and talk about how cholesterol is bad for you.


Dusty Weis:

Ah well, missed opportunities.


If you enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe to the Lead Balloon podcast feed. Share it with your friends and colleagues and you're really doing me a favor. Feedback is always welcome in the comments section or at dusty@podcampmedia.com. If you've got a story that's perfect for the show, I would love to hear from you.


Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. We're also on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the extra fun stuff. Until the next time, thanks for letting me into your coronavirus quarantine zone. I'm Dusty Weis. Be well.