Deborah Dugan on Grammys Nomination Process: There Are "Conflicts of Interest That Taint the Results"

Deborah Dugan - Getty - H 2020
Mindy Small/FilmMagic

The ousted chief of the Recording Academy alleged in an explosive complaint that the annual awards show is manipulated by the board.

Deborah Dugan on Thursday spoke out for the first time since filing her explosive 46-page complaint — alleging rigging, gender bias and harassment — with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences on Tuesday.

The suspended chief of the Recording Academy was placed on administrative leave last week just 10 days ahead of Sunday's Grammy Awards. The Academy has said that Dugan didn't raise the issues in her complaint until after claims were made against her, including that she had created a "toxic and intolerable" work environment, by the outgoing chief's executive assistant. But when Dugan and her attorney appeared Thursday on ABC's Good Morning America, they disputed that timeline and said she was placed on leave after filing a formal complaint with human resources.

"I actually wanted to make changes from within," said Dugan, who was the Academy's first female CEO. "I believe in what the Recording Academy should stand for: for artists. And I was trying at each step to take a deep breath and say, 'I can make a difference. I can fix this. I can work with this team.'"

During the interview with George Stephanopoulos, Dugan reiterated her complaint claims that she was sexually harassed by music lawyer Joel Katz, who is the Academy's general counsel and a former board member, and that her predecessor Neil Portnow was accused of raping a female performer, which led to his contract not being renewed. (Both Katz and Portnow have denied the allegations.)

Dugan said the incident with Katz happened "under the guise of a work dinner." Adding that it started "by calling me 'babe' and telling me how pretty I was. The evening went on to trying to kiss me and all the way through, I felt like I was being tested and, how much would I acquiesce? And I realized that was a power-setting move just on the onset as I was coming into the committee."

Dugan described her allegation in an email to human resources on Dec. 22, 2019. She was subsequently placed on leave, "in light of concerns raised to the Recording Academy Board of Trustees, including a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team," according to an initial statement from the Academy. The Academy now adds in a statement to GMA, "Ms. Dugan was placed on administrative leave only after offering to step down and demanding $22 million from the Academy, which is a not-for-profit organization."

Dugan told Stephanopoulos that it was at her first meeting with Katz, which was also a board meeting, where she "found out there was also a rape allegation against the former CEO [Portnow]." 

In Dugan's complaint, she also alleged rigging with the annual Grammys telecast, claiming there are secret committees that push forward artists with whom they have relationships, that the nominations process is manipulated in order to line up the show's performances, and — referencing the Academy's long-standing diversity and gender equality problems — the top awards often go to winners in the rock, country and pop categories, over R&B. On Thursday, Dugan said she has evidence to support her complaint.

When Stephanopoulos asked point-blank if the Grammys' voting system is rigged, Dugan replied, "I'm saying that the system should be transparent and that there are incidents, conflicts of interest, that taint the results."

She added, "I hate that I'm in this situation, because I'd much rather be here talking about the artists and the music, but I can't help but say there are conflicts of interest going on."

Still, when the anchor asked Dugan if viewers can tune into Sunday's show with good conscience, she replied, "Yes." And that she, too, will be watching: "I worked very hard on the show, and I love the artists that are going to be performing, and I love all those that are nominated that don't get the honor of being on the show."

Dugan also appeared on CBS This Morning after her stop at GMA, where she acknowledged to the anchors, "I have to pause and say, thank you for hosting me, because I do know that you’re hosting the Grammys on Sunday, so that must be awkward, at [the] least."

During that appearance, Dugan reiterated her claim that the voting system is rigged ("It’s mostly white males that are in those rooms that make these decisions") and said she is only speaking out now due to retaliation: "I only have come out to be here today because I was so severely retaliated against. I did not want to be here. I wanted to be giving a speech, in fact, today, about women in the industry that I was supposed to do." When asked by Gayle King if she would return to her post after the investigation is concluded, Dugan replied, "I wouldn't go back unless they were willing to change. There are a few bad eggs there, but there are so many wonderful people, and I really do believe that for a not-for-profit that's supposed to represent artists, we deserve better."

On Wednesday, the women on the executive committee of the Record Academy had released a statement defending the organization and denying Dugan's description of it, saying, in part, "It is deeply disturbing to us — and quite frankly, heartbreaking — to witness the firestorm against our organization that has been unleashed."

On Thursday, after Dugan's TV appearances, the Recording Academy Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion called on the organization’s board of trustees to step up and urged them to implement all 18 "systemic changes" outlined in the 47-page report it issued in December. The goal is to improve diversity and inclusion at the Academy and across the industry.

The organization's board chair and acting CEO, Harvey Mason Jr., and chief awards officer, Bill Freimuth, also released a statement ahead of Sunday’s Grammy Awards on Thursday in response to Dugan's allegations.

"Spurious allegations claiming members or committees use our process to push forward nominations for artists they have relationships with are categorically false, misleading and wrong," reads the statement sent to Billboard. "This process is strictly enforced with everyone involved and has no exceptions."

Read Mason and Freimuth's full statement below:

It is the goal of the Recording Academy to ensure the GRAMMY Awards process is led in a fair and ethical manner and that voting members make their choices based solely on the artistic excellence and technical merits of eligible recordings. 

The Nomination Review Committees are made up of a diverse group of current and relevant music creators with a high level of expertise in their respective genres. These committee members are all Voting Members. Committees are built by the Chair in consultation with the President/CEO and Chief Awards Officer using names submitted by all Academy Chapters. Many are Trustees. They are chosen weeks before the 1st round entry list is created so it is unknown whether any of the approved members will have been involved in a potential nomination. Because these committee members are at the top of their craft, and many members work with multiple artists, it is not unusual that some of the people in each room will end up with nominations from the first round. There are strict rules in place to address any conflict of interest. Should a committee member qualify for a GRAMMY, they are required to leave the room for the entire listening session and are NOT allowed to vote in that category. Committee members do not know the ranking of any entry and the voting is by secret ballot. The committees are not confidential, but the committee members’ names are for the obvious reason of preventing lobbying from outside parties, therefore further protecting the integrity of the voting process. Everything relating to the nomination and voting processes is set up with the intention of protecting the integrity of the awards in order to recognize and celebrate artists’ excellence.

We remain fully committed to the integrity, transparency and robustness of the awards and look forward with excitement to celebrating the artists who deservingly receive them. We are acutely aware that many artists have worked a lifetime for this moment at music’s biggest night and it is them we want to focus on when we celebrate this weekend.

Jan. 23, 7 a.m. Updated with Dugan's CBS This Morning appearance.

Jan. 23, 6:49 p.m. Updated with Mason and Freimuth's statement.