UPDATED: In a letter addressed to the Recording Academy Board of Trustees, which is holding annual meetings in Hawaii this week, former MusiCares VP Dana Tomarken accuses chairman/president Neil Portnow of choosing to steer money away from the charity in order to fund a deficit from this year’s Grammy telecast, and of brokering a deal to hold the organization’s annual Person of the Year event at a venue that left the charity with a significant loss in 2018 fundraising efforts, resulting in a projected $1 million for this year’s event, as opposed to $5 million in 2017.
In the nearly 4,500-word letter obtained by Variety, Tomarken, who was fired on April 16 after 25 years with the Academy, also claims wrongful termination, explaining that she and coworker Dorit Kalev were fired over the bill for a $2,500 MusiCares auction item that she was late in paying. She also says she was terminated “after a painful year of trying to protect MusiCares from being exploited, enduring ongoing instances of workplace abuse and harassment” from two male coworkers whom she names in the letter.
MusiCares, which offers emergency financial assistance to musicians and music-related people for medical and living expenses and substance-abuse treatment, has distributed more than $48 million to artists in need since it was founded in 1989.
Reached by Variety, Tomarken said only, “I sent the letter directly to the Trustees of the Academy’s Board of Directors and only them, so I have no further comment.” Via a representative, the Academy had the following statement:
“While we will not address point by point the letter from Ms. Tomarken, who was recently terminated following a thorough investigation, we respond as follows:
(1) The decision as to the venue for this year’s Person of the Year event was made after careful consideration of all options, and input from all appropriate individuals. MusiCares’ interests were not sacrificed in favor of the interests of the Recording Academy.
(2) As Ms. Tomarken well knows, neither MusiCares nor the Recording Academy ever intended to reduce, nor will they reduce, the amount of financial support made available to MusiCares clients in need. MusiCares continues to provide the highest level of service to people in need across our music community, as evidenced by the four-star rating it earned, once again, in February from Charity Navigator—the highest rating the independent charity watchdog organization awards. Simply, our commitment and support will not be diminished.
(3) Ms. Tomarken did not raise the issues relating to alleged “workplace abuse and harassment” until after her employment was terminated. An independent investigation of these allegations was immediately commenced. Based on the outcome of that investigation, appropriate action (if any) will be taken. Both the Recording Academy and MusiCares take all allegations of this kind seriously.”
In holding the Grammys in New York for the first time in 15 years, the Academy suffered an estimated $6 to 8 million shortfall for a multitude of reasons primarily associated with relocating the show — to Madison Square Garden — and Grammy Week events. The Madison Square Garden Company operates the venue, as well as Radio City Music Hall, where this year’s MusiCares Person of the Year event, honoring Fleetwood Mac, was held. Because Radio City is not configured to host MusiCares’ traditional dinner ceremony, a straightforward concert was staged, and attendance and ticket prices were affected.
Until last June, Tomarken had been negotiating with Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — which has a venue agreement with MSG rival AEG, operator of Los Angeles’ Staples Center, where the Grammys have been held for many years — to hold the MusiCares dinner and concert there. She claims that last June, “I received a call from Irving Azoff [who has a separate company with MSG]. Neil and the Madison Square Garden Company, Irving informed me, had early on in NY Grammy negotiations agreed that the Person of the Year tribute would be held at Radio City Music Hall, a Madison Square Garden Company venue. Neither I nor anyone on the MusiCares staff was ever notified of those discussions or agreement, and as a result, we were forced to walk away from a huge benefit to MusiCares: Barclays’ generous financial commitment and their venue.
“The agreement with Radio City Music Hall was at least twice as expensive as the Barclays Center offer,” she wrote, “and that does not factor in any additional support we might have been able to secure from Barclays sponsors.”
She also claims that MusiCares was dropped from a package deal executed by Portnow and Oak View Group (a partnership between Azoff and Tim Leiweke) in an effort to cover the shortfall. “Oak View had agreed to sell Grammy Week packages that included tickets to the telecast as well as Person of the Year, designed to raise $1.5 million for MusiCares,” she wrote. “However, just before the 2017 Christmas holiday, I discovered … that Neil had subsequently approved dropping MusiCares from the package revenue stream in favor of funding the telecast deficit.”
At least partially as a result of being “forced into costly agreements we had no control over,” she wrote, “MusiCares will likely net no more than $1 million from the 2018 Person of the Year. Last year’s net was $5 million.”
She also claims that the Academy’s business affairs department had asked the MusiCares staff to “reduce the amount of financial support for our clients in need, in order to offset the revenue loss from the NY Person of the Year event,” she wrote. “I was very clear with Neil that I did not think this was a good idea, especially since MusiCares still had $5 million from the 20th anniversary campaign which was specifically earmarked for financial assistance. In addition, the MusiCares Board of Directors had not approved reducing our grant funds to people in need. Reduction in the amount of financial assistance could not be made unilaterally by staff. It needed board approval. Neil agreed and told me that he would speak with … Business Affairs about these decisions,” although the outcome of that conversation is unclear.
As for her termination, Tomarken says the cause was apparently “an unsold auction item from the 2017 Person of the Year” for a hotel stay in Lisbon. She confirmed that she “had pledged $2500 to purchase the item in support of MusiCares in keeping with the last 25 years’ procedure on how some unsold auction items are handled after our events,” and had forgotten to pay the bill but was willing to do so and belatedly submitted her completed pledge form. A few days later she and Kalev were told by Academy human-resources staff “that we needed to separately meet with a CPA and an attorney from [Academy lawyers] Proskauer Rose about the ‘unsold auction item process.’ When I arrived, I immediately noticed their folders marked ‘INVESTIGATION’ and realized that Human Resources had misrepresented to us the purpose of the meeting.”
A week later, on March 29, she and Kalev were informed “that we were suspended and we were not allowed to entrance to the building, I was prohibited from having any contact with staff at the Academy or anyone related to our work at the MusiCares. The locks on our office doors were changed, and staff was told that they could have no contact with us or give out our contact information to anyone who needed to reach us. Two weeks later on April 16, 2018 we were terminated.”
Tomarken concludes by saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that all of you know who I am as a person and my fierce sense of protection for MusiCares over 25 years. It is true – this $2,500 pledge fell off my radar while I worked so hard to save MusiCares from losing millions … This pledge did not fall off my radar in the shameful and dishonest way that the Academy’s attorneys are alleging and may well be presented to you as a justification for my termination.”
She also notes that “There are people sitting around the trustees table today who have had to be reminded to pay their pledges, some over 2 years late. Others have tried to walk away from an auction purchase because they changed their mind and didn’t want to pay for it. … These are not examples of people trying to avoid paying for their pledge or items. They are human beings with great support for MusiCares.”
The letter comes at a challenging time for the Academy, as the Grammys and Portnow in particular have come under fire for low female representation in the awards and the show; Portnow aggravated the situation with an ill-worded post-show comment to a Variety reporter in which he said that female artists and executives need to “step up” in order to get ahead in the music business. While he later attempted to walk back the comment and the Academy has responded by forming a task force for female and minority advancement, the damage was done.