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Former Grammy Awards boss Neil Portnow and others respond to allegations made by Deborah Dugan

By | Published on Thursday 23 January 2020

Grammy Awards

A number of the people who have found themselves at the receiving end of allegations from ousted Recording Academy boss Deborah Dugan have now responded. That includes both her predecessor Neil Portnow and the assistant who filed a bullying claim against her.

Portnow denies the allegation Dugan made in the lengthy legal filing she submitted this week to the LA office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he left the Academy partly or mainly because of an allegation of rape.

Meanwhile, the former assistant to both Portnow and Dugan – Claudine Little – says that the legal filing just proves the ousted CEO’s “abusive and bullying” nature.

In his statement, Portnow says that he had already decided that he would leave the Academy when his contract ended in 2019 before the 2018 edition of the organisation’s Grammy Awards. It was that awards bash that sparked a diversity row after women were noticeably absent from the list of winners and performers. Portnow, of course, then exacerbated things by saying that women should “step up” if they want to win awards – a comment he later apologised for.

While it was largely thought that this was the reason for Portnow’s departure from the Academy, in her legal papers this week Dugan implied that it was actually a rape allegation by a “foreign” singer that led to his resignation.

Although he confirms in his statement that there was an allegation against him, he says that he was “completely exonerated” following an investigation. “This document is filled with inaccurate, false and outrageous and terribly hurtful claims against me”, he says of Dugan’s legal filing. “Here is what is true: The allegations of rape are ludicrous and untrue”.

“The baseless complaint about my conduct referenced in the EEOC filing was immediately brought to the attention of the board of director’s executive committee”, he goes on. “An in-depth independent investigation by experienced and highly regarded lawyers was conducted and I was completely exonerated. There was no basis for the allegations and once again I deny them unequivocally”.

Dealing with other revelations and allegations in Dugan’s legal filing, Portnow also denies that he demanded a $750,000 consultancy role with the Academy’s following his resignation. Dugan did not actually claim that he demanded it, just that she was told she should give it to him by the organisation’s board and executive committee.

Insisting that his departure from the Academy wasn’t to do with either the 2018 “step-up” remarks or the rape allegation, Portnow goes on: “I fulfilled the terms and responsibilities of my contract during my seventeen years as President and ultimately Chief Executive Officer”.

“Consistent with my pledge to ensure that there would be the appropriate amount of time for the Academy to organise and execute an efficient and transparent transition”, he says, “I determined far in advance of the Grammy telecast in 2018 that I would not seek a further extension of my contract scheduled to end 31 Jul 2019. I informed the then board Chair and executive committee of my decision. At no time did I ever demand a $750,000 consulting fee”.

Dugan’s numerous claims about the Academy, its board and its awards – which also include allegations of sexual harassment, corruption, misogyny and vote fixing – were made as a war of words escalated between her and the music industry organisation. That began when she was placed on “administrative leave” last week, officially due to Little’s allegation of bullying.

The Academy says that this is the sole reason for her suspension shortly before the upcoming Grammy Awards, adding that Dugan only started making her own claims about the organisation after she learned that she was being investigated over the bullying complaint. But she counters – now in those official legal documents – that the bullying claim is being used as an excuse to get rid of her because she started raising wide-ranging concerns about how the Academy is run.

However, Little, who made that bullying allegation, says that Dugan’s account of her time in the CEO role spreads “a false narrative about the Academy”. She then accuses Dugan of attempting to “leverage public opinion along gender lines”. All of this, says Little, is “emblematic of Ms Dugan’s abusive and bullying conduct while she served as the Academy’s President and CEO”.

In her legal filing, Dugan claimed that the issue with Little – who had also been Portnow’s assistant – was that she didn’t have the right skills to do the job, struggling to carry out basic tasks. She also alleged that she had received complaints about Little’s conduct from Barbara Streisand’s manager and an unnamed Universal Music Publishing exec.

Dugan claimed that she tried very hard to find Little an alternative role within the organisation, but that doing so resulted in rising tensions. However, Little herself argues that the real issues were around Dugan’s management style, not her own abilities, insisting that she has worked her way up the Academy hierarchy into her current role “entirely on merit … while working for and with leaders far more demanding and hard-charging than Ms Dugan”.

She concludes: “It is disappointing that Ms Dugan hopes to leverage public opinion along gender lines and expects not to be scrutinised for her inexcusable behaviour simply because she is a woman; she should be held to the same standard”.

One other statement in the busy back and forth on all this has come from the Recording Academy’s General Counsel Joel Katz, who Dugan accused of sexual harassment in her legal document. She said that Katz took her out for dinner before she officially took up the CEO role. There, she says, he acted inappropriately, made various sexist remarks – along with consistently calling her “baby”, rather than by her name – and attempted to kiss her, even after she had made it clear that she was in a relationship and not interested in his advances.

A statement issued by Katz’s attorney Howard Weitzman reads: “Ms Dugan’s allegations of harassment and her description of a dinner at the steakhouse in the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel are false, and Mr Katz categorically and emphatically denies her version of that evening. This dinner meeting was two and a half months before Ms Dugan started her job. Mr Katz believed they had a productive and professional meeting in a restaurant where a number of members of the board of trustees of the Academy, and others, were dining”.

He continues: “Ms Dugan’s claims are made, for the first time, seven months after this dinner took place. Mr Katz will cooperate in any and all investigations or lawsuits by telling the absolute and whole truth. Hopefully Ms Dugan will do the same”.

Ensuring the back and forth between the two sides in the dispute continues as the big Grammy Weekend approaches, Dugan’s attorneys have already responded to Portnow’s statement, arguing again that it is she who is telling the absolute and whole truth. “Mr Portnow’s statement is only the most recent in a series of defamatory attacks aimed at Ms Dugan because she is a woman who has shown the courage to stand up for what is right”, they say.

They then take issue with the wording of Portnow’s statement which, they say, is written so that – on a cursory read – it looks like he is denying he was ever accused of rape. When, in fact, he is actually confirming that the allegation of rape referenced in Dugan’s legal filing did happen, it’s just that he strongly denies that allegation.

“When read carefully”, Dugan’s reps say, “it is clear that Mr Portnow does not even deny that an allegation of rape was made, although the statement appears wordsmithed to leave the false impression that there was no allegation. We and Ms Dugan stand behind her EEOC charge 100%”.

On the $750,000 consultancy role and Portnow’s insistence he never demanded any such thing, Dugan’s lawyers note that her EEOC filing “does not allege that he made such a demand. What Ms Dugan knows is that the then-Chair of the Recording Academy’s board, John Poppo, requested that she hire Mr Portnow as a consultant and pay him $750,000, before she was ever told about the rape allegation. Moreover, Ms Dugan does not believe that the full board had even been told about the proposed consultancy or the rape allegation at that time”.

If there is any truth in Dugan’s numerous claims, it could pose an existential threat to the Recording Academy. Which would definitely provide motivation to attempt to paint the ousted CEO as a vindictive troublemaker. Though we are still very much in the midst of a “she said, he said” argument at the moment and it’s hard to assess the credibility of each side’s claims.

In the short term, the Academy’s biggest concern is likely to be to what extent this whole debacle impacts on this weekend’s Grammy festivities. That possibly depends on how much artists and celebrities get involved in the debate, including on stage at the televised Grammy show. Acceptance speeches could be quite stressful for organisers this year.

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