Leaked Recording Academy Memo Says Sexual Harassment Investigation Is Underway, Vaguely Addresses Other Claims

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The Recording Academy says an investigation of ousted CEO Deborah Dugan’s claims of sexual harassment is underway, among other measures to address the firestorm of controversy that has emerged around the organization in recent weeks, according to a pair of memos from Board of Trustees head Harvey Mason Jr. The memos were distributed Thursday to elected leaders and leaked to members of the media, including Variety.

The memos outline various efforts the Academy says it is making in the wake of Dugan’s surprise ouster on Jan. 16 amid allegations of vaguely defined “misconduct” against a senior female employee (which sources say amount to rudeness to her former assistant, Claudine Little), and her subsequent blockbuster legal complaint of Jan. 21 that levels multiple allegations, including irregularities in the award nominations process, questionable financial decisions including “excessive” legal fees to outside firms connected to Academy executives, an inappropriate governance structure for a not-for-profit organization, and sexual misconduct against two senior Academy executives, including attorney Joel Katz, among other claims. While the memos lay out multiple areas in which the organization says it is making efforts, it is short on specifics, citing confidentiality.

While Dugan’s arguably most inflammatory claim involves sexual harassment against longtime Academy counsel Joel Katz, in which she alleges that he behaved inappropriately and attempted to kiss her at a private dinner shortly after she accepted the job (an allegation he has denied), that is dealt with briefly in the memos. “We take that allegation very seriously and it is being independently investigated by a law firm with no previous ties to the Academy,” it says, making no mention of an earlier rape allegation against former president/CEO Neil Portnow, which he said in a statement received a full investigation that resulted in his exoneration.

However, her other claims are far more concerning regarding the organization as a whole and its interactions with artists and the music industry, including improprieties in nominating procedures; claims of its failures to cooperate with and enact the recommendations of the Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion that it created in the wake of the issues laid bare by Portnow’s 2018 comment that female musicians and executives need to “step up” in order to advance in the industry; and “excessively high” legal fees paid to outside firms by the Academy — some $15 million over the course of four years to two law firms connected to two prominent Academy executives. The Academy has no in-house counsel.

Regarding the latter claims, the memo says briefly, “Viewed as a percentage of the size of deals our lawyers negotiated, our legal fees are well in line with industry standards. While hiring a full time in-house counsel would not eliminate the need for the use of expert law firms and could actually increase overall legal costs, the Academy was and remains willing to consider doing so if it will result in a savings to the Academy.” While there is no disputing the fact that an attorney of Katz’s formidable stature and connections is best for a role like the 2016 renegotiation of its deal with CBS for the Grammy Awards — which sources say is a ten-year deal in excess of $200 million — using outside law firms for everyday legal work was, as Dugan told Variety in December, “mind-boggling,” adding that she planned to bring in an in-house attorney at the soonest opportunity.

Mason and the second memo address the issues in turn after his introduction.

“I am writing to update you on what is happening, while also asking you to bear in mind that, because sensitive employment matters are involved, and there are ongoing legal proceedings, there are many things we cannot discuss even though you may be reading about them in the media,” Mason wrote, in an oddly paternal tone that has marked all such recent memos from the Academy. “Our confidentiality restrictions as an organization must be maintained even if they are not honored by others,” he continued, before saying “It is difficult to read unfair criticism of the Academy in the media, but our reticence to respond should not be misinterpreted. We are confident that when we are able to share all the facts, our members, the industry, and the public will understand that all our actions have been appropriate and in the interest of making progress towards our shared goals of diversity, inclusion, and our mission to recognize musical excellence, advocate for the well-being of music makers, and ensure that music remains an indelible part of our culture.” He also reminded members that “all dealings with the press or other consumer or trade-facing media must be handled by or managed under the guidance of the Recording Academy’s Communications department.”

He then lays out several points:

  • “We made Deborah Dugan the President/CEO of the Academy with the highest hopes. Unfortunately, issues arose. Sometimes this happens in an organization. But it is clear to us that the allegations she has made are either completely untrue or grossly misleading.”
  • “The Academy had expressed a number of concerns to Ms. Dugan about her performance and had worked with Ms. Dugan to try to correct them,” he writes. “Those specific concerns are being addressed in a confidential forum, to which she is entitled under Ms. Dugan’s employment contract, though in the interests of transparency we have offered to waive the confidentiality of any arbitration proceeding in this matter. So, while I would like to tell you more about that, I cannot at this time. The sexual harassment allegation she has made is being taken very seriously and is being independently investigated.” Dugan requested to be released from the arbitration agreement included in her employment contract, which prohibited any disputes from being held in open court; the Academy denied it, although they did waive the confidentiality provision (which apparently does not yet allow for the concerns to be aired publicly. “Forced arbitration takes away a victim’s right to a trial by a jury of her peers, and at the same time provides protection for perpetrators of misconduct,” her attorney, Douglas Wigdor, said in a statement.
  • “Her outrageous assertion that the Grammys are ‘rigged’ is utterly false. We do realize that the nomination and voting process needs to be better understood so we have taken steps to make it more public and to educate people about how it works to preserve fairness and protect Nominations Review Committee members from lobbying and pressure. In addition, as always, our awards process will be reviewed at the upcoming April Awards and Nominations Committee meeting.” While Dugan alleges irregularities in the nominating process and sources have told Variety of several acts of seeming self-interest by members of the committees and even the Academy itself, those are mostly isolated and at times at least subject to debate.
    • To that end, the second memo notes that the nominating process is re-examined annually and the deadline for recommendations is March 1, “The Grammy nominating and voting procedures have been developed and refined over the years to ensure that qualified people are voting on matters within their expertise, and to protect those nominators and voters from lobbying and pressure. It has become clear that it needs to be better understood, so we have taken steps to make it more public and to educate people about how it works and to educate people about how it works and why it is designed as it is. Detailed information and FAQs about the Grammy process may be found at https://www.grammy.com/recording-academy/faq#overview.
  • “Perhaps of greatest interest to the music industry and the public is that our commitment to a transformative agenda remains firm, and this situation will not deter or distract us from making progress towards our goals. Among other things, we are implementing 17 of the 18 recommendations of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, led by Tina Tchen, and considering adoption of the 18th recommendation. We will shortly be reconvening the group to review our progress.” This addresses the Task Force, which had disbanded after it submitted its report on December 12 — and Dugan told Variety that day that the 17 provisions had been implemented.

The second document is essentially a question-and-answer that repeats many of Mason’s statements, and curiously refers to Dugan repeatedly as “Deb,” along with the following.

Under a heading reading “Why has it come to this?,” it says “We hired her to be President/CEO with the highest hopes, and as sometimes happens in an organization issues arose. It would be inappropriate and a violation of our confidentiality restrictions to go into details regarding Deb’s performance. We can say, however, that some of her public statements are clearly incompatible with the role of the President/CEO of this organization, including her false and damaging claims about the integrity of the Grammy Awards process.” That statement does not mention that all of those Dugan’s claims were made after she was abruptly placed on administrative leave after attempts between her and the Academy to negotiate an orderly departure broke down.