<p>From left: Columbia Crandell, Tunisha Singleton and Jessica Morse, all former staffers at Vin Di Bona Prods., have filed suit against the company over sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims. </p>

From left: Columbia Crandell, Tunisha Singleton and Jessica Morse, all former staffers at Vin Di Bona Prods., have filed suit against the company over sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims.
Courtesy of Subject

Former 'America's Funniest Home Videos' Staffers Speak Out Over "Predatory" Workplace

A trio of employees go on the record for the first time to detail allegations of racial and sexual misconduct at Vin Di Bona Productions: "They think we’re not going to stand up for ourselves."

On May 14, 2018, Columbia Crandell was sitting in the so-called bullpen at Vin Di Bona Prods. when a male superior asked her to come in and check out the latest Oculus Rift VR headset. The bullpen is the area of the office where young staffers — mostly women and often recent graduates of Di Bona’s alma mater, Emerson College — watch and log clips that just may land on the production company’s signature series, America’s Funniest Home Videos, or its tie-in social media platforms.

Crandell, an Emerson alum, said yes and followed vp business development and strategy Philip Shafran back to his office.

“He asked me, ‘Have you played this before?’” recalls Crandell, whose claims were detailed in a legal filing last year. “And I said, ‘Yes. It’s pretty cool.' And he said, ‘Well you might scream, so I’m going to close the door.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to scream.’ And he still closed the door.”

The closed door made her feel uncomfortable, but she proceeded to sit down on a couch and play a Matterhorn-esque roller-coaster game, while Shafran sat at his desk, facing Crandell. After she finished, she got up to go leave, and he offered a second game and said, “This is a standing game because it’s meant to be disorienting,” she recounts. “He directed me to stand next to his desk and to face the wall where the door was, to face his bookshelf.” Shafran was still sitting at his desk when she started the game, and Crandell continued to ask him questions. About 30 seconds into the game, Shafran stopped answering.

“With the Oculus Rift, there was a slight gap between my nose and my cheekbone, so I could see my own feet,” she says. “I remember looking down, and then his shoes were right behind my feet. Somehow he has moved from sitting at his desk to being behind me in the corner. I started to panic at that point, and I knew something was really wrong. So in one motion, I took the headset off and turned to face him and said, ‘I’m motion sick. I’m done.’ And he had his phone out and he was holding it by his waist, angling it downward. My first thought was, ‘He’s trying to take a picture up my skirt.’ I made eye contact, and he looked scared, ran back to his desk and threw his phone onto the desk, face down.”

To the casual viewer, ABC’s long-running America’s Funniest Home Videos offers the kind of squeaky clean programming that eschews edge and controversy in favor of wholesome fun. But to some insiders, including Crandell, the production company behind the series was a hotbed of toxic behavior that also included racism. Even more troubling, complaints were met with reprisals, and the alleged offenders were allowed to keep their jobs. In March 2019, Crandell was one of three Jane Roes who filed a civil suit in Los Angeles County Court against Vin Di Bona Prods. and its digital-focused offshoot, FishBowl Worldwide Media. The trio claim that they were victims of workplace racial and sexual harassment and are seeking damages for wrongful termination, harassment, retaliation and emotional distress. In response an attorney for Vin Di Bona Prods. told The Hollywood Reporter: "The physical, emotional and psychological safety of our employees is always our highest priority. When accusations are made, we, like any responsible organization, have an obligation to act swiftly, thoughtfully and respectfully to support the well-being and rights of all parties involved."

But VDB and FishBowl’s team of attorneys, which includes Jonathan Moonves and Venable’s David E. Fink, moved to compel arbitration, which the trio’s attorney, Barbara Cowan, is fighting. “Secrets thrive in darkness, and that’s what arbitration is,” says Cowan. “It’s a secret proceeding. Nobody gets to know what happens. It’s done in a closed room, not a public courtroom, and it’s just a secret proceeding designed to allow this behavior to continue.”

Now, for the first time, the women are speaking on the record and sharing their individual experiences with THR. Of the three, Tunisha Singleton was the first hired, landing an entry-level position at VDB in April 2017. After about four or five months, she was promoted to senior manager of digital partnerships and business development. Part of her job was to create new streams of revenue with AFV content within the digital space. Singleton co-wrote a treatment for an original program with Jamie Goldstein, stepdaughter of Di Bona — the legendary producer behind MacGyverEntertainment Tonight and America's Funniest Home Videos — and briefed her boss, Lisa Black, vp business development. Singleton and Goldstein were pitching it to several media outlets, searching for a potential buyer or partner.

At the same time, another female supervisor was hosting a comedy event. As Singleton detailed in the complaint, there were more than 50 people there, including all of her superiors, peers and potential media partners.

The supervisor “decided to call me a crack whore and told me to stop doing blow in the bathroom and that I would never produce anything, that I should just stop, and I wasn’t going to amount to anything,” Singleton says. “And she said that on the microphone in front of everyone, including the new people that I had never met before, who just all kind of looked around like, ‘What the hell? Is she serious?’”

Singleton says Black laughed at the remark.

“I was completely mortified,” she adds. “And Jamie was standing right next to me and was like, ‘Forget that.’ I ran to the bathroom and just sobbed and was like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’ A week later, they fired me.”

The incident capped off a year in which she endured what she felt was casual racism including comments about her hair and being mocked for not having seen Black Panther. Though the company described Singleton’s departure as a layoff, she says no other employees were laid off at that time. The company was even hiring at least one position with the same job duties as that of Singleton's, according to last year’s suit.

“Lisa said that it was because my position was no longer necessary in content acquisition, which one, is not my title, and two, is bullshit because the partners that I helped secure for them they continued to work with after me,” says Singleton. “So I know that was crap.”

That same day, as she left the office for the last time, staffers received an email that they would be required to participate in a harassment prevention training program. (THR has viewed the email.)

During the week between the comedy event and her departure, Singleton complained to Shafran about the “crack whore” remark.

“I was like, 'I’m devastated. I’m mortified. What do I do?'” she says. “He was like, ‘Get over it. It was a comedy show.’”

Things became more awkward in the office. She was getting ready to present the treatment she wrote with Goldstein during a quarterly meeting in which all departments update the full staff on upcoming initiatives.

“I had spent all week preparing this,” says Singleton. “I continually sent Phil my updates. ‘How does this look?’ He said, ‘This is great.’ When the meeting happened, Phil went up and presented all of my work and the sheets that I had made, and my name wasn’t mentioned once. Generally, I would have to be the one speaking about what I’m doing. But that didn’t happen. I knew something was wrong then.”

Days later, she was dismissed.

One month later, Crandell found herself in Shafran’s office, playing the Oculus game that she says quickly took a disturbing turn. She told a colleague what happened that same day and told her boyfriend that night.

According to the complaint, two days later, she notified her supervisor, who arranged a meeting with Black and the company’s executive vp and COO, Paul Lapointe. Crandell entered the conference room, and the lights were off, giving off a “weird vibe.” There was no HR representative. She says Black and Lapointe insisted she reenact what happened in Shafran’s office.

“Lisa was like, ‘Did you see the camera between your legs?’” says Crandell. “I was shocked when she said that.”

They assured her that an investigation would be conducted. But what followed was a response in which Crandell, who had been hired in December 2017 by the senior staffer who targeted Singleton at the comedy event, said she was made to feel like she was the one creating a problem. The following day, she told Black that she felt uncomfortable being in the line of sight from Shafran’s office. “’I don’t like how he just circles around the bullpen many times a day, and that makes me very uncomfortable,’” Crandell recalls telling Black. “She’s like, ‘You can watch clips for eight hours a day in a dark room,’ which is just the most entry-level position I think that the company offers.”

Crandell was moved to a room with all the editors, away from the rest of her team. No explanation was given to the editors, creating awkward questions. Unbeknownst to her, she went from being a salaried employee to hourly, but given that her paycheck amount remained the same, she did not realize that her employee status had changed.

By mid-July of that year, there were no new developments, so she asked Black and Lapointe about the status of the investigation.

“Lisa was like, ‘Well, we moved your desk,’” says Crandell. “We talked to [Shafran], and we moved your desk, and you don’t have to see him, so we resolved it. I was really shocked. They said, ‘We hired the best investigative firm in America to handle this.’ I’m like, ‘I was never contacted, so how does that work?’”

So, on July 31, 2018, Crandell filed a police report with the LAPD. A detective later reached out and said that her employer and Shafran were contacted. The alleged offense was listed as invasion of privacy. However, Cowan says it qualifies as sexual assault under the penal code. The LAPD investigated the case for two years and recently referred it to the District Attorney, who declined to prosecute. Cowan says no explanation was given.

At the time, Crandell continued working and was on a team with Jessica Morse, the third Jane Roe in the lawsuit and another young Emerson grad who was hired in March 2018 as a manager. During the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in September 2018, Crandell was feeling triggered and decided to confide in Morse.

Morse had already seen what she describes as red flags in the workplace, which was detailed in the lawsuit. She, too, had attended the comedy event during which Singleton was targeted.

“It was horrible and traumatic for [Singleton], but I remember just being so confused and I was afraid that they were going to turn to me. I had only been working there for a month, and I was like, ‘Am I next because I am Filipino?’”

Upon learning of Crandell’s experience, she was even more outraged. She had been told that Crandell missed two days of work in May because a piece of glass got in her eye from the Oculus. Shafran also was gone from the office for about half of summer having surgery, Morse was told. A get-well card was even circulated.

“I think they sent him home as some sort of weird fake punishment and then made us all sign a card,” Morse says. “The fact that I signed that card, I want to take it back.”

But around the same time as the Kavanaugh hearings, Shafran returned to the office, and on Sept. 7, 2018, he joined a meeting that Morse attended.

“I just totally froze,” she says. “So I went to my supervisor and said, ‘I can’t be in meetings with Phil anymore.’"

Two days later at the ’80s-themed AFV family picnic, Shafran approached Morse, and she abruptly walked away. As alleged in the complaint, two days later Black summoned her to a conference room. Black, who was joined by Lapointe in the conference room, asked why she couldn’t interact with Shafran.

“I just said, ‘I’m uncomfortable because of what happened between him and Columbia,’” she recounts. “They said, 'We can’t do anything if you don’t have any allegations against him.' I was like, ‘Well, I believe Columbia.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you can’t always trust people. We’ve hired the best investigation team in America.' And then they said over and over, ‘If you say something about someone and it turns out not to be true, you can be legally responsible.’”

Cowan calls that “an attempt to silence survivors.” She adds, “To openly threaten somebody with defamation and legal culpability for doing exactly what they are supposed to do in this situation is just morally reprehensible and legally wrong.”

For Morse, she knew she couldn’t work at the company any longer. She typed up a resignation letter and handed it to her supervisor and gave two weeks' notice. She told Crandell what happened, and she, too, decided it was time to leave.

Morse left the office on Oct. 2, 2018, and sat in a nearby Popeye’s, simultaneously eating and crying by herself. By the time she made it home, her supervisor called to say that Black had accepted her resignation letter and that she shouldn’t show up for her final two weeks.

She and Crandell were instructed to return to the offices the following day before working hours to collect their things. Crandell then filed an unemployment claim in Los Angeles alleging workplace misconduct. But in a move unexpected by Crandell, the company fought Crandell’s unemployment claim and sent Lapointe to the hearing. But Judge Sylvia Cruz-Morena rejected the company’s contention that the claim was unmerited and issued an opinion saying that no employee should be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace and that Crandell’s reason to leave was valid. “The evidence does not show that the employer reasonably handled [Crandell’s] complaint, and instead handled it unreasonably by threatening [Morse] to not ask questions about the claimant’s allegations,” wrote Cruz-Moreno in her decision. “Consequently, [Crandell] had a reasonable fear for her safety from this work environment.” Moonves served as the company’s counsel in the matter.

Two months after Crandell and Morse quit, Shafran was promoted. Shafran remained in a new post until the three women filed the lawsuit last year, at which time he was put on administrative leave. Outwardly, the company has been considered a model for navigating the post-#MeToo landscape. In April 2018, right around the same time as Singleton’s dismissal and Crandell’s incident in Shafran’s office, Di Bona was asked by SAG to give a presentation to the guild about how employers should react to the #MeToo movement and what they could do to make the workplace a non-hostile, inclusive environment.

In a statement to THR, an attorney for Vin Di Bona Prods. commented on the women's claims: "The company retained an external expert, followed recommended protocols and conducted a thorough investigation. That process revealed no evidence of wrongdoing at the time.  Ultimately, out of consideration for the well-being of all concerned, Phil Shafron [sic] was removed from the work environment and has not returned since that time.”

The Vin Di Bona attorney added: “We believe a swift resolution of this case is in the best interest of all parties who have been impacted, and we have been attempting to do just that since the claims were made.  We encourage the plaintiffs’ counsel to allow the legal process to proceed efficiently and move to the merits with more alacrity."

Meanwhile, the three women say they have struggled to find a job comparable to their positions at VDB Prods. Crandell, now 25, works at Starbucks. Singleton, 37, consults and is an adjunct professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Morse, 24, is the only one with a full-time job in the industry, working at Skybound Entertainment, a multiplatform company founded by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman. Black and Lapointe still hold top positions at VDB Prods.

“It was so predatory to take advantage of people who desperately need jobs, desperately need to get a start,” says Morse. “They trust the name of a family TV institution, AFV. And they think that we’re not going to fight for ourselves. They think we’re not going to stand up for ourselves. They think we’re not going to expect any rights.”