UPDATED: Deborah Dugan, who was placed on administrative leave from her post as president/CEO of the Recording Academy in January after accusations of “misconduct” toward an employee sources say was her former assistant, has been terminated, the organization announced today in a letter to members. It added that it will begin a search for a new president/CEO “in the coming days.”
The move is not a surprise, as Dugan, who was placed on leave just days before the Grammy Awards, fiercely disputed the Academy’s version of events in a legal complaint and several statements, which accuse the organization of multiple instances of misconduct, including improprieties in the Grammy voting procedure, “egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members… and a ‘boys’ club’ mentality”; “exorbitant” legal fees paid to outside law firms; and that attorney Joel Katz, an Academy executive affiliated with one of those law firms, attempted to “woo” and kiss her. Her complaint also brought forth an accusation that her predecessor, Neil Portnow, raped an unnamed female artist; Portnow later admitted the accusation but said he was exonerated after a third-party investigation. Sources have told Variety that Dugan’s ouster was more of a “coup” by executives and officers at the Academy, who felt threatened by her agenda for change in the organization and disapproved of her management style. Dugan served in the role for just over five months.
Her complaint also states that in January her attorneys and the Academy had nearly negotiated a peaceful exit, but disagreed over a severance amount — which sources say was initially $8 million, in line with her employment contract, but was abruptly withdrawn and replaced with a much smaller offer by the Academy. She was placed on administrative leave shortly afterward.
The Academy’s letter fails to specify the alleged misconduct that resulted in Dugan’s termination, or to respond to many of her allegations. Contacted by Variety, reps for the Academy declined to provide those and other further details.
In response to the termination, Doug Wigdor, an attorney for Dugan, tells Variety: “The Academy’s decision to terminate Ms. Dugan and immediately leak that information to the press further demonstrates that it will stop at nothing to protect and maintain a culture of misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment, corruption and conflicts of interest. The decision is despicable and, in due course, the Academy, its leadership and its attorneys will be held accountable under the law.”
A statement from Dugan reads: “I was recruited and hired by the Recording Academy to make positive change; unfortunately, I was not able to do that as its CEO. While I am disappointed by this latest development, I am not surprised given the Academy’s pattern of dealing with whistleblowers. Is anyone surprised that its purported investigations did not include interviewing me or addressing the greater claims of conflicts of interest and voting irregularities? So, instead of trying to reform the corrupt institution from within, I will continue to work to hold accountable those who continue to self-deal, taint the Grammy voting process and discriminate against women and people of color. Artists deserve better. To me, this is the real meaning of ‘stepping up.’”
In response to Wigdor’s statement, the Academy disputed that the letter was “leaked” and added, “Again, these allegations are false, as proven out by independent investigation which found them to be exactly that. Making the allegations again does not make them true.”
The Academy says in the letter, which is signed by the Executive Committee and takes the same paternalistic tone as its other recent memos to members, that “In the coming days, we will initiate a search for a new President/CEO who will leverage the Academy’s diverse membership and rich history and help us transform it to better serve our members today and into the future. As we structure this new search, we will look carefully to see where the last one led us astray and make any necessary changes going forward.”
“Dear Members,” the letter begins. “As you know, Deborah Dugan has been on a paid administrative leave of absence since January 16, 2020. We are writing to let you know that, earlier today, the Board of Trustees voted to terminate Ms. Dugan’s employment as President/CEO of the Recording Academy.
“This decision of the Board, with full support of the Executive Committee, was based on: Two exhaustive, costly independent investigations relating to Ms. Dugan and the allegations made against her and by her. These investigations were carried out by experienced individuals with no prior relationship to the Academy, interviewed a combined total of 37 witnesses, and reviewed numerous relevant documents and emails. The investigators were not given any directives about what specifically to investigate or what conclusions, if any, they were expected to reach, and they were not limited by the Academy in terms of what witnesses they could interview or files or documents they could review. Each investigator had free rein to fully investigate all of the allegations that were made against Ms. Dugan and by Ms. Dugan against the Recording Academy. The unwarranted and damaging media campaign that she launched in an attempt, without justification, to derail the Grammy Awards show, including her false allegations that the system was — in her words — ‘rigged’ and that the Academy was ‘corrupt.’
“Ms. Dugan’s consistent management deficiencies and failures, and other factors. All of this led the elected leaders of the Academy to conclude that it was in the best interests of the Academy to move on.”
Dugan’s complaint and multiple sources say the Academy’s accusation of “misconduct” amounts to alleged verbal abuse against an unnamed female executive who the complaint and sources identify as Claudine Little, Portnow’s and Dugan’s former assistant, who went on paid leave last fall.
Dugan’s accusations against the Academy include:
*That Joel Katz, for decades a key executive at the Academy, sexually harassed Dugan, and that among other attempts to “woo” her, he attempted to kiss her at an expensive dinner he’d taken her to and repeatedly referred to her as “baby”;
*That she was asked to offer Portnow a $750,000 consulting contract;
*”egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members and voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards, all made possible by the ‘boys’ club’ mentality and approach to governance at the Academy”;
*that “Katz and his law firm are paid an exorbitant amount of money by the Academy,” including $250,000 per year (plus reimbursement of travel and expenses that were incurred without any prior authorization) simply to be on call in the event the Board needs any legal advice. 93. On top of that, according to news reports, Greenberg Trauig billed the Board for over $15mm in legal work” — as noted by Variety — “over a period of only a few years,” and that “Katz and his law firm,” as well as others including “Proskauer Rose (and former Proskauer Rose partner, Chuck Ortner)” have billed “millions of dollars to the Academy, which is a not-for-profit entity”;
*That Dugan’s assistant, Claudine Little, was monitoring her emails and sharing information with Academy board members and executives.
The Academy’s letter of today continues, “This is not what we wanted or what we expected when we hired Ms. Dugan last year. At the time, we placed our trust in her and believed she would effectively lead the organization. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. Though she made some valuable contributions, Ms. Dugan failed to perform her job duties as promised and expected. Although we did participate in some settlement discussions at Ms. Dugan’s request after she stated that it was her desire to leave the Academy and be bought out of her employment contract, we were ultimately compelled to dismiss Ms. Dugan as our President/CEO. Not removing Ms. Dugan from the organization at this time would have caused us to compromise our values. We could not reward her with a lucrative settlement and thereby set a precedent that behavior like hers has no consequence.”
However, the letter, like the Academy’s past communications, fails to specify what Dugan’s alleged behavior entailed, or to respond to many of her allegations.
Variety will have more on this situation as it continues to develop.