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The Colossal Grammys Mess Will Probably Only Get Worse

Laura Bradley
Good Morning America via ABC

On Thursday, former Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan was set to give a speech at the Billboard Power 100 about women in music. Instead, she began her day on Good Morning America, speaking with George Stephanopoulos about her recent ouster from the Academy, as well as her subsequent legal complaint, which alleges a “boy’s club” and corrupt voting patterns on the Academy’s part and brings to light a rape allegation against former CEO Neil Portnow. This is likely not the kind of PR the organization wanted just days before the Grammy awards air this Sunday—and however messy things might look on the surface, a deep dive only makes matters more confounding. 

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer also unsuccessfully sued his own band to let him play onstage with them on Sunday—a sideshow that has nothing to do with Recording Academy leadership, but muddies the waters of what should be a carefree night all the same. Going forward, things will probably only get worse from here.

Dugan first came to the Academy last August, after being appointed in the spring; her predecessor, Neil Portnow, had stepped down earlier that year due to his instantly viral (and reviled) comment that female artists need to “step up” in the wake of a male-dominated 2018 Grammys ceremony. Dugan had music industry experience and, more recently, had held chief positions at both Disney’s print publishing division and Bono’s (RED) charity—which made her seem like a plum pick for the role. All appeared well until last week, when news broke that she had been fired.

Dugan’s complaint, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday, claims that she was asked to approve a $750,000 consulting contract for Portnow, despite the fact that Academy executives knew that the former CEO had been accused of raping an unnamed female artist. Dugan’s attorneys also claim that high-powered attorney Joel Katz attempted to kiss her during a private dinner—an allegation Katz “categorically and emphatically denies.” The complaint also describes corruption in the voting and nominations process. During the 2019 song of the year voting process, for instance, Dugan says one artist who was represented by a member of the board was initially ranked 18 out of 20 for the award—but was somehow appointed to the nominating committee for that category and subsequently received a nod over both Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande. (Dugan has declined to name the artist to whom the complaint refers.)

In a statement released to Deadline on Wednesday, Portnow denied the rape allegation, writing, “An in-depth independent investigation by experienced and highly regarded lawyers was conducted and I was completely exonerated.”

All of this came up during Dugan’s Thursday interview with Stephanopoulos, who began by asking Dugan about female executives’ denial on Wednesday that the Academy is a boys’ club. Dugan pointed out that she is the first female CEO the Academy has had in 62 years before adding, “There are definitely amazing, amazing people that work there in the Recording Academy, and also on the board. But at the very onset—in fact, under the guise of a work dinner—I was propositioned by the general counsel, entertainment lawyer of enormous, enormous power in the industry.”

Stephanopoulos referred to Katz’s denial, but Dugan stood firm. “Yes, well, starting with calling me ‘babe’ and saying how attractive I was, how pretty I was, the evening went on to a kiss—trying to kiss me, all the way through,” she said. “I felt like I was being tested in how much I would acquiesce. And I realized that was a power-setting move just on the onset, as I was coming into the committee.” (Katz did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)

Dugan also stood by her claim that the Grammy voting system includes, as she put it to GMA, “incidents of conflict of interest that taint the results,” and that the problem extends beyond the song of the year category. “It’s not even just that one room,” she said, adding that “there were complaints made in the jazz category.” She said she has evidence, and that she presented it in “a claim that I filed.”

“It’s very serious,” she said, “and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that I could make a difference.”

But there’s some dispute between Dugan and the Academy regarding the nature of her dismissal. While Dugan and her attorneys have framed the ouster as direct retaliation for a letter she sent to the Academy’s head of human resources—which purportedly detailed most of the claims made in the complaint she filed Tuesday—the Academy has emphasized a vaguely described allegation of misconduct against Dugan herself, which former executive assistant Claudine Little is believed to have filed.

On Monday the Academy shared a statement from Chair of the Board and now interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr., which made the misconduct allegation public for the first time. In his statement, Mason said the Academy first became aware of abusive work environment claims against Dugan last November, “and in December 2019, a letter was sent from an attorney representing a staff member that included additional detailed and serious allegations of a ‘toxic and intolerable’ and ‘abusive and bullying’ environment created by Ms. Dugan towards the staff.” 

“After we received the employee complaints against Ms. Dugan, she then (for the first time) made allegations against the Academy,” the statement adds. “In response, we started a separate investigation into Ms. Dugan’s allegations. Ms. Dugan’s attorney then informed the Executive Committee that if Ms. Dugan was paid millions of dollars, she would ‘withdraw’ her allegations and resign from her role as CEO. Following that communication from Ms. Dugan’s attorney, Ms. Dugan was placed on administrative leave as we complete both of these ongoing investigations.”

Dugan’s lawsuit claims the Academy chose to publicize the misconduct claim to “get out in front” of her legal complaint. “Ms. Dugan was not placed on leave because of any accusation by a senior female member of the Academy,” the complaint states. Later, the attorneys add, “The concerns referenced in the Academy’s statement to the press … had been raised well more than a month prior to Ms. Dugan being put on leave. Yet, Ms. Dugan was not put on leave when the allegations were first raised, nor was she put on leave after the Academy’s receipt of a demand letter from the accuser.”

Little has assembled a legal team of her own, including powerful attorney Patricia Glaser, with plans to file a lawsuit of her own against Dugan. (During the GMA appearance, Dugan and one of her attorneys, Douglas Wigdor, pointedly mentioned that Little’s legal team previously represented Harvey Weinstein, and that Little had worked as an administrative assistant to Portnow.) A Variety report indicates that Little and Dugan’s work relationship was fraught from the beginning and worsened over time. 

Representatives for Little were unable to say at this time when she might bring forward her own action against Dugan but did provide a statement to The Daily Beast on Little’s behalf that hints at what such a lawsuit might allege. “Ms. Dugan’s choice to litigate in the press and spread a false narrative about the Academy and me and my colleagues is regrettable, but it is also emblematic of Ms. Dugan’s abusive and bullying conduct while she served as the Academy’s President and CEO,” the statement reads. “I am proud of my career with the Academy—where, as a woman, I was able to work my way from secretary to Director of Administration in the executive suite, solely based on merit and while working for and with leaders far more demanding and hard-charging than Ms. Dugan. It is disappointing that Ms. Dugan hopes to leverage public opinion along gender lines and expects not to be scrutinized for her inexcusable behavior simply because she is a woman; she should be held to the same standard.”

It’s unclear how the battle between Dugan's and the Academy’s respective narratives will play out—in particular her claim that nominations are rigged could sour the organization’s relationship with artists. Considering how many notorious snubs there have been over the years, it’s easy to imagine a lot of artists might have grievances to air. As Dugan and, eventually, Little’s lawsuits move forward, even more information about all parties involved is bound to emerge. Whatever that reveals, it seems safe to guess the Academy would have preferred we hadn’t started looking at all.

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