Recording Academy fires president/CEO Deborah Dugan; she files EEOC complaint alleging rape and wrongful termination

January 21, 2020

by Colleen McGregor

The Recording Academy’s ouster of its first female president/CEO, Deborah Dugan (after she was on the job for only five months), has resulted in Dugan filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint with some bombshell allegations, including accusations that top-ranking officials engaged in sexual abuse/harassment and corruption. The Recording Academy (the organization behind the Grammy Awards) announced Dugan’s “administrative leave” ouster on January 16, 2019, and her complaint was filed on January 21, 2020. In the complaint, Dugan alleges that she heard from a Recording Academy employee that Neil Portnow, who was the Recording Academy’s president/CEO from 2002 to 2019, raped an unnamed female artist after the artist performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The artist is only described as a Recording Academy member who’s not from the United States. The year this alleged incident occurred was not included in the complaint.

The complaint also alleges that several unnamed people in the Recording Academy knew that Portnow engaged in sexual misconduct with other women, who are also unnamed. Dugan further claims that Recording Academy executive attorney Neil Fox sexually harassed Dugan by trying to forcibly kiss her and repeatedly calling her “baby.” Dugan’s other allegations are that the Recording Academy engages in corruption in the Grammy voting process and that certain board members overspend and abuse the Recording Academy’s funding.

According to the complaint, the alleged rape was the real reason why the Recording Academy announced in May 2018 that Portnow would be stepping down from the position. After the Grammy Awards in January 2018, Portnow received extensive criticism for saying in a post-Grammys press conference that female artists and producers needed to “step up” if they wanted to be nominated for and win more Grammys. The overwhelming majority of nominees and winners at the 2018 Grammys were men, as are the majority of the Recording Academy’s voting members. Portnow later made a public apology for the “step up” comment, and the Recording Academy formed the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, consisting primarily of women and people of color. Prior to Portnow announcing his resignation, Portnow was accused of mishandling Recording Academy funds for the 2018 MusiCares event. He denied the allegations.

After a year-long search for Portnow’s successor, Dugan was appointed to the Recording Academy’s CEO position, and her official start date was August 1, 2019. According to Showbiz 411, Portnow’s former executive assistant Claudine Little was preparing to file a lawsuit against Duggan for creating an abusive work environment. Unnamed sources also told Showbiz 411 that Dugan’s management style was arrogant, dismissive and not well-received by longtime staffers and board members. Meanwhile, other unnamed sources told Variety that Dugan was forced out by a coup from Recording Academy board members who feared they would lose their positions and perks after Dugan did an audit of the Recording Academy’s finances and was planning to make sweeping changes.

Until a permanent replacement has been announced, Recording Academy board chair Harvey Mason Jr. has been appointed interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy. On January 20, 2020, Mason issued a statement to the Recording Academy’s membership. In the statement, Mason revealed that in November 2019, allegations began that Dugan was creating a hostile and toxic work environment. According to Mason’s statement, the Recording Academy launched two separate, independent investigations, and Dugan “was placed on administrative leave as we complete both of these ongoing investigations.”

Meanwhile, Public Enemy co-founder Chuck D posted an open letter on his Instagram account, in which he expressed support for Dugan. Chuck D commented in the statement: “I salute Deborah Dugan for her truth and courage to try and effect change. As always, a bunch of ignorant, testosterone-fueled, usually old white men stop progress.”

Dugan, a former Wall Street attorney, has held executive positions in various areas of the entertainment industry, including executive VP of EMI Record Group; president of Disney Publishing Worldwide; and president/CEO of the British broadcaster Entertainment Rights. Prior to joining the Recording Academy, Dugan was CEO of (RED), the nonprofit co-founded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and attorney/activist Bobby Shriver. Dugan also served as senior adviser to the Tribeca Enterprises Board and headed legal services for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Her attorneys Doug Wigdor and Michael Willeman issued this statement on January 21, 2020: “The complaint that we filed today against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammys) highlights tactics reminiscent of those deployed by individuals defending Harvey Weinstein.  As we allege, the attempt by the Recording Academy to impugn the character of Deborah Dugan is a transparent effort to shift the focus away from its own unlawful activity. This blatant form of retaliation in corporate America is all too common, even post #MeToo, and we will utilize all lawful means necessary to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.”

The statement continues, “As alleged, from the very beginning of her employment as the Recording Academy’s first female CEO and President, Ms. Dugan complained about and attempted to remedy the lack of diversity, sexual harassment and other improprieties at the Academy (which were gender based), including egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members, voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards and other misconduct. In response to her complaints, as alleged, the Academy unlawfully retaliated against Ms. Dugan by placing her on administrative leave (only after she indicated her intent to commence legal action and refused to settle her claims on terms dictated by the Academy), threatening Ms. Dugan with termination and publishing false and defamatory statements about Ms. Dugan to the media.  Moreover, as of just yesterday, as alleged, the Academy’s interim CEO and President, Harvey Mason Jr., penned and published a false, retaliatory and defamatory letter designed to ‘get out in front’ of this Charge and further destroy Ms. Dugan’s reputation.”

During all of this controversy, the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony is set to take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 26, 2020. CBS will have the U.S. telecast of the show, which will be hosted by Alicia Keys for the second year in a row. It will be the last Grammy Awards executive produced by Ken Ehrlich, who served as executive producer of the Grammys for the past 40 years. Ehrlich, who will still work in television, will be replaced as Grammy Awards show executive producer by Ben Winston, who also executive produces the CBS talk show “The Late, Late Show With James Corden.” Corden hosted the Grammy Awards in 2017 and 2018.

UPDATE: Portnow and Fox have publicly denied all the allegations made against them in Dugan’s complaint.

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