NEW YORK — Michael Eisner acknowledged Thursday he misled the public on national TV by telling Larry King in September of 1996 that he would “hire Michael Ovitz again” — even as he was pushing full throttle for Ovitz’s ouster.
“I can’t say that it was completely candid … in that I wouldn’t have hired him again,” Eisner told a Delaware court. “I was right in the middle of the situation.”
In fact, at the precise time Eisner and Ovitz appeared side by side on Larry King, they were deep in talks with Sony Corp. to nudge Ovitz toward the Japanese conglom.
“I think it was probably a really dumb thing to do. It was stupid and I wish we hadn’t done it. But we did. It was planned way in advance, and we couldn’t have gotten out of it without really angering Larry King,” he added in his fourth day of testimony.
He said he felt if they’d cancelled the appearance, “it would have necessitated an immediate firing” with no hope of salvaging any of Disney’s heavy financial investment in Ovitz — meaning his rich contract. Eisner hoped Sony might have assumed Disney’s financial obligations if Ovitz moved.
Sony and Ovitz never reached an agreement.
Plaintiff’s lawyer Steven Schulman expanded his attempts to portray Eisner as overly cozy with Disney’s board members and focused with repetitive zeal on lax record keeping and lack of procedural discipline at board meetings.
Eisner said he started to inform board members on the touchy Ovitz “situation” in scattered walks around Walt Disney World in late September during a busy four-day celebration of the park’s 25th anniversary. “I can’t say I spoke to each and every one. I spoke to most of them.”
Eisner at first indicated he hadn’t briefed directors regarding Ovitz at a formal board meeting Sept. 30. Then said he had.
“It’s an evolutionary process of remembering. I always felt I had told the board. I believe now that the first half of that meeting was me telling the board about Michael Ovitz. It’s all coming back. It was Donovan’s first meeting. He was a little shocked that the president was about to be fired. I had to go through that with him.”
Eisner was referring to Leo J. Donovan, a Jesuit priest and president of Georgetown U. Schulman noted Eisner’s son attended Georgetown and that Eisner was a major donor.
All in the family
Schulman implied Eisner might have been present at an executive session of the board where his employment contract was discussed, which would have been highly irregular. Eisner denied that, and the record seemed to indicate he had left the meeting part way through.
The lawyer challenged a provision by Eisner that his wife, Jane, join the Disney board if he died.
“Why assure your wife a position on the board?”
“Because I was becoming the largest shareholder of the corporation and I thought that would be appropriate. I felt at the time, and still do, that the Disney company was a family company and (I believe in) keeping wives of deceased board members apprised of what’s going on, and inviting them, and informing them. … I talk to Mrs. Wells and Mrs. Disney. I have a feeling, it’s not currently in vogue, but having people that have long historic knowledge of our history and culture … is good for our company.”
“Is your wife a CEO?”
“Other than being smarter than me, she is not the CEO of another company.”
Schulman revisited, for the umpteenth time, the infamous dinner party at Eisner’s home where Steven Bollenbach and Sandy Litvack brutally informed Ovitz, who had just been hired, that they wouldn’t be reporting to him. Ovitz has testified that the declarations left him shocked and confused.
“He was annoyed,” Eisner said.
“Did he look confused?” Schulman asked.
“No. He was annoyed.”
“He said, ‘I’m in your hands,’ or something like that?”
“He accepted the position that both Mr. Bollenbach and Mr. Litvack reported to me.”
“Is it possible he meant that” he was leaving it to you to work out so that the execs would report to him?
“Did his body language indicate that’s what he meant?”
“That’s a complicated thought to project through body language,” Eisner said.
Eisner also denied those two execs made Ovitz’s life a living hell, as Disney’s former president has testified.
Ovitz said Litvack “followed him around, not with a shovel, but with a knife pointed at his back. Is that figuratively true?” Schulman asked Eisner.
“Is which true, the shovel or the knife?”
“No, that’s not true.”