How Les Moonves and His CBS Loyalists Worked to Discredit Accuser: “It Was Sort of a Mafia Culture”
A recent investigation reveals the lengths to which the ex-CBS chief’s cadre of C-suite insiders — some of whom remain with the company — went to quash allegations of sexual misconduct in order to protect their boss.
On Nov. 2, 2022, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she’d secured a $30.5 million settlement from CBS and its former president and CEO Leslie Moonves for misleading the company’s investors about his misconduct, concealing sexual assault allegations against him and related insider trading by another top CBS executive. Her office also released a 37-page report detailing how members of Moonves’ C-suite and others unsuccessfully sought to neutralize the crisis before it knocked off the top boss, tanked the share price and gummed up a then-nascent merger with Viacom. It’s a damning case study in corporate complicity, control and cover-up.
The report centers on a yearlong sequence of events beginning in late 2017. Then-81-year-old Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, who died in July 2022, filed a confidential police report with the Los Angeles Police Department. Golden-Gottlieb alleged that Moonves had attacked her on multiple occasions in the 1980s, when they were both executives at Lorimar-Telepictures. The statute of limitations had long run out on any possible criminal or civil charges related to her accusations, yet she’d been spurred by the scores of younger women who’d gone public in the press against Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men in what had recently become known as the #MeToo movement.
By September 2018, after Moonves had been publicly accused of misconduct by a group of women including Golden-Gottlieb, he resigned. (While not the most famous man to be felled by #MeToo claims, he was arguably the most powerful.) Several senior executives from his regime left in his wake. But multiple other figures involved in the concealment efforts outlined in James’ brief, including a deputy who obtained the police report from an LAPD captain, as well as a security head who ran a counterintelligence probe targeting Golden-Gottlieb’s family, have remained at the company.
Since the settlement and accompanying attorney general report, media attention has focused on the compromised LAPD captain, who’s now the subject of a departmental misconduct probe. Meanwhile, the corporate brass’ attempts to undermine Golden-Gottlieb have been largely overlooked.
CBS hasn’t publicly addressed its handling of the matter, which James has referred to California’s Office of the Attorney General. (The latter tells THR that it can’t comment on a potential or ongoing investigation.) CBS’ parent, Paramount Global, offered a brief statement, noting that the settlement obtained by the New York attorney general was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing and that the Golden-Gottlieb episode “does not relate in any way to the current company.”
Paramount declined to answer THR‘s detailed questions about the actions of current and former CBS executives and whether they violated company policies. Direct inquiries to those involved were met with silence.
“When people lack confidence in the processes for ending sexual harassment, the problem continues,” says Anita Hill, a professor of law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, who famously levied sexual misconduct claims against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. She’s now chair of the Hollywood Commission, which collects information about the industry’s labor force toward ending workplace abuses. (Moonves himself was a commissioner with the organization until the misconduct allegations became public.) “The AG report reveals a number of faults suggesting a clear abuse of power in the approach that CBS took to claims against Les Moonves,” adds Hill. “What it comes down to is whether those agencies who have the authority and resources to demand reforms and hold companies accountable for mishandling claims are doing so.”
By the account of Golden-Gottlieb’s own unfinished memoir, provided to THR by her son, Jim Gottlieb, her pioneering career as a TV executive was forged at the forefront of an earlier era of feminism, backlash and realpolitik.
Golden-Gottlieb, a native of suburban Boston and mother of two, entered the business after a network executive saw her appear on an L.A. morning show anchored by Regis Philbin, explaining California ballot measures on behalf of the board of the League of Women Voters. Soon, she was producing public-affairs programming for L.A. broadcast station KTTV, including a proto-The View called Ad Lib, featuring a Hispanic co-host who at one point nursed her baby on camera — “modestly covered,” according to Golden-Gottlieb’s manuscript, “but probably a first.”
Norman Lear, whom she’d befriended, helped land her an executive role at NBC. The late Brandon Tartikoff, then the wunderkind president of the network, was her boss. Golden-Gottlieb recalled of his relationship with his female subordinates that he “made out with most, slept with many.”
Golden-Gottlieb eventually switched sides to development, specializing in comedy, first for Disney, then MGM and finally Lorimar-Telepictures. By this time, she was speaking at the same women’s events as Fear of Flying author Erica Jong and found herself at the types of intimate A-list festivities — like Woody Allen’s 1979 New Year’s Eve party, alongside David Geffen, Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall and Mick Jagger — where, she writes, “I became fully aware that I was the only one there I didn’t know.”
At Lorimar-Telepictures, she was running comedy development when, in 1986, she alleges that Moonves, then head of movies and miniseries, first assaulted her. Golden-Gottlieb told the Los Angeles Times in September 2018 that while driving them to what she’d presumed was a business lunch, he grabbed her head and thrusted it toward his exposed crotch: “He pushed his penis in my mouth and he came very quickly. Then he said, ‘Don’t you want me to do this to you?’ and I said, ‘Take me back.’ ” While she later shared the story with intimates, she didn’t report it to the company’s human resources department, fearful of retaliation.
Two years later, Moonves had been promoted to a more senior role, and Golden-Gottlieb was invited to his office, where she says he again exposed himself to her, and she in turn fled the room. The next day, he found her in her own office, berated her about what she described as a minor workflow issue and then physically attacked her. “He turned red, and he reached over and pulled me up and threw me against the wall,” she told the Times. “I mean really hard. I was on the floor, crying.”
From there, Golden-Gottlieb claimed that Moonves exacted further revenge, moving her into ever tinier offices in increasingly isolated locations. After she left Lorimar-Telepictures, she was unable to secure further executive work in Hollywood. (Golden-Gottlieb then turned to substitute teaching in L.A.-area public schools.) “He absolutely ruined my career,” she told The New Yorker of Moonves.
Later, in a deposition viewed by New York Times journalists James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams, authors of the new book Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, Moonves disputed Golden-Gottlieb’s account and denied he’d ever retaliated. “We were friends,” he explained. “She was flirty. I knew her in previous jobs. One may have claimed she was chasing me more than I was chasing her. Maybe. It was 32 years ago.”
Jim Gottlieb says the attorney general’s office requested an interview with his mother during its inquiry. However, she was unable to participate because she was suffering from dementia before her death.
Ian Metrose, CBS’ longtime senior vp talent relations and special events, was centrally involved in the company’s response once it learned of Golden-Gottlieb’s police complaint, according to the recent attorney general report. Within hours of the document’s filing at LAPD’s Hollywood Division on Nov. 10, 2017, he was tipped off by a department captain, Cory Palka. Metrose had hired and paid him to be Moonves’ security aide from 2008 to 2014 at the Grammy Awards, which have aired on the network for half a century. (The LAPD is now investigating the officer, who’s since retired.)
For the next eight months, Metrose allegedly schemed with top executives, and acted as the intermediary with Palka, to ward off a crisis they understood could easily be their CEO’s undoing if the public were to learn about it. Even as Metrose was working behind the scenes to quash the accusations against his boss, Moonves loudly proclaimed his solidarity with the #MeToo movement that was toppling other powerful men in media and entertainment. Charlie Rose was fired from anchoring CBS This Morning on Nov. 21, 2017, the day after eight women told The Washington Post he’d sexually harassed them; Moonves later said, “We didn’t spend 10 seconds” on the decision. After Matt Lauer’s dismissal from NBC News at the end of November following allegations of sexual misconduct, Moonves announced at Variety’s Innovate Summit that “it’s important that a company’s culture will not allow for this.”
Long before his fall, Moonves was known for his imperious leadership. He cultivated an insular network of trusted lieutenants, their allegiance bolstered through bonusing. Intrigue was a constant, as he and his deputies sought to survive and advance through the sensational corporate and familial succession turmoil of billionaire owner Sumner Redstone’s final years and daughter Shari Redstone’s consolidation of power. “You have this extreme fear and extreme loyalty,” explains an industry executive who often interacted with this group. “It was a sort of Mafia culture.” (In text messages revealed during an unrelated 2018 civil litigation against CBS’ then-parent company, the Shari Redstone-led National Amusements, Moonves wrote to his then-COO Joseph Ianniello, “Mattresses tomorrow a.m.,” a reference to Sonny Corleone’s description of going to war with a clan in The Godfather.)
Some in the media business who’ve been in Metrose’s shoes think his actions were beyond the pale. Others are more sympathetic, emphasizing the fog-of-war of responding to crises in real time. One such exec with troubleshooting expertise notes that they would likely have followed a similar course of action and accepted the police report: “A good comms person is an intel gatherer, first and foremost.”
There’s little in the attorney general report to indicate that Metrose first sought the input of CBS’ counsel. If indeed he didn’t, explains another seasoned in-house fixer, that would’ve been a crucial mistake. “You don’t try to be a hero,” this person says. “The chief executive’s interests are not the only ones you’re there to protect.” Metrose didn’t speak to THR for this article.
CBS’ longtime chief communications officer Gil Schwartz, who was Metrose’s boss, was also a focus of the AG report. Known in and beyond the media sector for his decades-spanning writing career under the nom de plume Stanley Bing, Schwartz penned several best-selling books about corporate strategy, including What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness and Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends and Wage the Real Art of War. According to the report, Schwartz, who died in May 2020, told Metrose to request a copy of the police report from the LAPD captain. Schwartz soon took the lead in preparing for the fallout of Golden-Gottlieb’s claim — if it were to become public — by alerting members of his communications team to stand by, drafting multiple versions of a press statement and consulting with an outside public relations firm. His successor as CBS PR head, Chris Ender, who worked for Schwartz at the time and was and still is Metrose’s superior, didn’t respond to inquiries.
Schwartz unloaded $8.8 million in CBS stock in the weeks before Ronan Farrow published his New Yorker investigation into Moonves’ history of misconduct, including with Golden-Gottlieb, that would result in the CEO’s departure. (CBS’ share price dropped 10.9 percent from the day before the story broke to the day after.) This insider trading, a violation of New York’s investor protection laws, was a factor in the $30.5 million settlement, the majority of which the AG’s office says will be returned to CBS shareholders.
According to the AG report, two other top CBS executives used the unredacted police report to investigate Golden-Gottlieb’s “personal circumstances and that of her family, including her children, her brother and her former spouse.” They were an unnamed chief security officer, whom multiple professional directories identify as seasoned former NYPD detective Thomas Cruthers, as well as chief administrative officer Anthony Ambrosio, who previously had been listed as among the highest-paid personnel bosses in the U.S., according to an HR trade outlet. At one point, Ambrosio sent Cruthers a text message, circulating a records search of Golden-Gottlieb’s son, Jim, which included his address. “Need to research if neighborhood gives clues to need for $,” he wrote.
Ambrosio left CBS in October 2018, two months after Moonves stepped down. Per an SEC filing, he maintained a consulting contract with the company that, for 2019, was outlined at $100,000 a month with a potential $1.2 million in bonuses. Soon after, as CBS and Viacom combined, then changed its name to Paramount Global, Cruthers ascended to his current post as the conglomerate’s chief global security officer. Neither Ambrosio nor Cruthers responded to THR‘s inquiries.
The AG report didn’t specify whether CBS’ top in-house lawyer was involved in the episode — or kept out of the loop. Lawrence Tu, the chief legal officer at the time per an SEC filing, who’d long served in similar capacities at companies like Goldman Sachs, NBC and Dell Technologies, left in May 2019. CBS policy was for the chief legal officer, in this case Tu, to pre-clear Schwartz’s trading of corporate stock. He didn’t make himself available for comment.
Shari Redstone — then the majority shareholder of CBS and member of its board — learned in December 2017 that CBS was in jeopardy for an unspecified sexual misconduct issue. Other board members later arranged for their mergers-and-acquisitions attorney to lead an internal investigation into the claims against Moonves.
Yet the AG report revealed that the probe consisted of a single 20-minute call with Moonves and a request for his human resources file. Furthermore, the attorney “interviewed no other persons, collected no additional documents and reviewed none of Moonves’ electronic communications. Even Moonves, in pleadings and during testimony, referred to the investigation with quotes, suggesting the investigation was not genuine.” Although Moonves did disclose that he was the subject of Golden-Gottlieb’s police complaint and that there was also another woman from his past who could come forward with a sexual assault allegation, he stated all such incidents were consensual.
The attorney didn’t seek to independently verify the claims and told the board there was no further need to examine its CEO. “If it’s as described, the most generous description you could give to that investigation would be ‘superficial,’ ” says Lawrence Hamermesh, executive director of the Institute for Law & Economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School. While the AG report doesn’t identify the M&A attorney, The New York Times reported in September 2018 that Michael J. Aiello, chair of the corporate law department at Weil Gotshal & Manges, was the lawyer involved and that colleagues at his firm listened in on his call with Moonves. According to Stewart and Abrams, the authors of Unscripted, Moonves’ adversary Shari Redstone was dubious of Aiello’s work, asking a board member who’d been briefed on the probe: “Are you telling me a denial from Les is sufficient investigation?” Aiello and his firm didn’t respond to questions for this story.
Gonzalo Freixes, associate dean at the UCLA Anderson School of Management whose areas of expertise include business ethics, brings up the Front Page Test, a classic executives’ analytical tool for determining an individual or institution’s course of action in a tricky situation: How might it look if it were later reported on in the media? “What gets people in trouble, mostly, is not the bad conduct itself,” Freixes counsels. “It’s the cover-up.”
In January, at a press conference at the Los Angeles law office of Gloria Allred, who represented Golden-Gottlieb in the Moonves matter when she was alive, Golden-Gottlieb’s daughter, Cathy Weiss, reflected on learning, after her mother’s death last year, about the efforts to discredit her. She noted she’d been proud when her mother told her she was going to file the police report and compared the revelations from the AG’s report to a gangster movie. “I thought, ‘I’m happy she wasn’t here to see this,’ ” she said.
Cathy observed that her mother’s decision to ultimately go public to the media was in keeping with her trailblazing life. “She was a powerful woman,” she explained. “Even now, it’s so hard to be a powerful woman in Hollywood. She fought as hard as she could, on so many different issues. Except when it came to the really personal — and then she did.”
Katie Kilkenny contributed to this report.
Illustration Photo Credits: Ambrosio: Michael Buckner/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images. Schwartz, Metrose: Courtesy of CBS. Cruthers: Owen Hoffmann/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images. Moonves: Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.