At Morals Clause Trial, Tavis Smiley Attacks "Lies," Acknowledges Relationships With Subordinates

A two-week trial between the talk show host and PBS is nearly finished — but not before a branding expert talks about the #MeToo movement just as the Harvey Weinstein verdict comes, and not before Smiley gets grilled on cross-examination.
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Tavis Smiley

On the witness stand near the end of a two-week long trial, Tavis Smiley grew visibly angry and denied allegations of sexual misconduct as "lies." At the same time, he acknowledged having consensual sexual relationships with two female subordinates during his tenure as a former host of a long-running PBS late-night talk show.

In D.C. Superior Court, Smiley is battling PBS, which suspended his show two years ago. The broadcaster asserts it was justified in taking him off the air and withholding payments because he allegedly violated the "morals clause" of his contract. The proceeding amounts to a test of the enforceability and scope of morals clauses, a standard part of talent contracts that in the past century has rarely become the subject of trial. Smiley is both defending PBS' claims while pursuing the broadcaster over millions of dollars he is allegedly owed.

On Wednesday, Smiley was on the witness stand for a second time, and during cross-examination, he admitted that on his PBS show, he had once led a conversation about #MeToo claims with guests including Maria Shriver and Gretchen Carlson. Smiley testified that the discussion included a debate about whether relationships in the workplace were appropriate.

PBS' lawyer Grace Speights asked Smiley if given his knowledge of the #MeToo environment, he told PBS about his prior relationships with subordinates when his production company signed its last extension. 

"No, I didn't," Smiley said.

Although D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams ruled on summary judgment that allegations of sexual misconduct that long predated the lawsuit were outside the statute of limitations, the judge has allowed the jury to hear about alleged acts that occurred during the contract period. These include claims Smiley continued to have a sexual relationship with an executive producer on his show, publicly lied about a 2007 settlement agreement with a female subordinate and appeared on Facebook and ABC's Good Morning America to defend himself.

Smiley's testimony came after the jury heard from his female accusers, mostly via taped depositions.

When one of those accusers was asked about having a consensual sexual relationship with Smiley, she said, "It depends on how you define 'consensual.'"

She said Smiley vigorously pursued her, sent salacious notes to her and left keys for her to his hotel room under the guise of business. 

"I felt like I was being set up," she said. "Long story short, I was pressured by Mr. Smiley a lot. There were times I gave in ... I kept telling him 'no, no, no, no, no.'"

Denise Pines, formerly one of Smiley's top lieutenants, testified this woman was let go because of performance issues, but the accuser herself says she left because she was being harassed. After leaving Smiley's company, she retained a lawyer and came to a $325,000 settlement.

Smiley admitted having a relationship with her, but denied a lot of her story, including that he once threatened her by saying, "I'll show you what happens when you say 'no.'"

He also denied having power over women.

"You have a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame," said Speights. "You are CEO. Can't you understand how people see you as powerful?"

"I guess so," said Smiley, but insisting later, "I have influence, not power."

Smiley said it wasn't true that he told one woman he wanted to reach into her shirt.  He denied telling another subordinate, "I need you to suck my dick so I can sleep."  Smiley said it was a lie that he put his hand on a different female employee's knees and asked why she was playing hard to get. He also rejected the assertion he had told an employee, "I bet you never had sex with a black man. Danny and I can show you."

On the other hand, Smiley did agree that he teased one female employee about her appearance.

"Your position is that all six women lied?" asked Speights.

"Is that a serious question?" Smiley responded. "I didn't call all of them a liar," pointing to the acknowledgement about commenting about an employee's appearance.

"The other women?"

"Parts of the testimony were lies," he said. "I had consensual relationships. ... I'm not calling them blanket liars."

In earlier testimony, Smiley explained some of the financial nuances of his show. It had an annual budget just north of $5 million and he raised about $3.3 million from sponsors, particularly Walmart, which put up $2 million. That left a deficit, which was where PBS was supposed to come with money.

But on Dec. 13, 2017, with money due on the television studio that he had rented, Smiley learned that PBS wouldn't be sending a scheduled payment because of an investigation. Smiley said he would never forget the moment when his lawyer read him the network's letter over the phone. He says just 12 minutes later, his phone started pinging with text messages from friends who had read an article in Variety about the suspension. Smiley says he learned more from the article than he did from PBS, which instructed him to dismantle his website and remove all representations of an association with the broadcaster. Smiley obeyed. Soon, his sponsors were abandoning him. He laid off his staff. He maintains that PBS failed to give him proper notice about which part of the contract he had allegedly violated.

"If PBS had suspended the show and said nothing to the press, would you have gone on Facebook and GMA?" asked Ronald Sullivan, Smiley's lawyer.

"I would have waited for the results of the investigation," answered Smiley.

The trial is taking place just as Harvey Weinstein was convicted of two criminal counts of sexual abuse up in New York. In fact, at the precise moment that the jury in the Weinstein case on Monday let it be known they had reached a verdict, a marketing expert was on the witness stand in the Smiley case discussing the powerful effects of the #MeToo movement.

Tulin Erdem, a professor at New York University, testified that 425 prominent people have been accused of sexual misconduct since The New York Times ran its 2017 exposé about Weinstein, referred merely as "some other person" since the judge had banned the mention of his name as potentially prejudicial to Smiley. She added that in this environment, many people would consider sexual relationships between superiors and subordinates to be harassment.

"It doesn't need to be true," added Erdem, "Many brands are sensitive to this issue. A company like PBS is especially vulnerable to allegations because it is in the public eye."

Erdem said that PBS' brand is about respect for others, gender equality and family appeal — and suggested that allegations against Smiley could tarnish the network. On cross-examination, she admitted that if those allegations proved untrue, PBS' image wouldn't be hurt in the end, and also that she had no information that sponsors had fled PBS upon accusations against other personalities including Charlie Rose.

The trial now proceeds to closing arguments. After instructions, the jury will likely begin deliberation on Thursday.