Can CBS' Grammys Telecast Weather an Explosive Scandal?

Deborah Dugan has gone from leading the Recording Academy to being a whistleblower. Here's why those watching — or not watching — this year's awards ceremony may be more consequential than any judge.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Just how many people will tune in to CBS on Sunday to watch the Grammy Awards? The question carries extra weight this year thanks to a bombshell complaint filed on Tuesday by Deborah Dugan, the suspended chief of the Recording Academy.

In a 46-page discrimination charge lodged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dugan alleges she was sexually harassed by general counsel Joel Katz, one of the music industry's most powerful attorneys. She claims the Recording Academy — the 62-year-old organization that runs the Grammys — wished to hire her predecessor Neil Portnow as a consultant for $750,000 despite not having his prior contract renewed after allegedly raping a female recording artist. (Portnow strenuously denies the claim.) She further lays out her case that the Grammys are a "boys club," that minorities are systematically underrepresented and that "secret committees" use their positions in power to push forward artists with whom they have relationships.

It's possible that the 20 million-or-so viewers of the Grammys won't care about any of this. After all, the A-list performances on the telecast have become the star attraction. If potential viewers are aware of the scandal (Dugan is set to appear on Good Morning America on Thursday, a high-profile media perch), they might also believe the emphatic denials of Portnow, Katz and others at the Recording Academy who insinuate that Dugan — a lawyer and former chief of Red, the nonprofit group co-founded by Bono of U2 — is in the midst of an extortion campaign. Then again, Dugan's allegations of sexual misconduct come just as Harvey Weinstein stands trial in New York and as the #MeToo movement continues to flourish. And her allegations of a corrupt process for awarding honors like song of the year come as many in the nation are transfixed by other cheating scandals, including college admissions for children of the rich and famous as well as sign stealing in professional baseball. How is it possible that music fans could look past what she's claiming given everything else that is happening?

The question matters, in part, because Dugan's lawyers have ensured the relevancy of CBS' ratings. Technically, she hasn't yet brought a lawsuit. Instead, she's merely primed one with an EEOC complaint — and is doing everything she can to draw attention to it. Her legal case almost is beside the point at the moment. She's exerting pressure in the public arena and likely hoping the Recording Academy will be shamed into a settlement (which could include money or any demanded structural reform). Her move thus far amounts to a referendum on behavior from the academy that she has outlined. And Grammys viewership becomes somewhat of a proxy for a quick verdict.

Dugan has tapped Wigdor LLP, which, lest anybody forget, is the same law firm that represented more individuals against 21st Century Fox in hostile workplace and gender and racial discrimination claims filed over misbehavior by former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Most of those cases ended up being settled.

Upon filing a complaint with the EEOC, Wigdor issued an explosive press release about the submission and spoke of Recording Academy "tactics reminiscent of those deployed by individuals defending Harvey Weinstein."

Typically, complaints with the EEOC aren't shared publicly. The agency will review the complaint and can file a formal lawsuit on Dugan's behalf, or more likely, the EEOC would issue a notice so that she herself can sue. But that would take months. Instead, Dugan is making lots of noise just days before the Grammys. Such a gambit can be dangerous: Michael Avenatti is sitting in El Chapo's old jail cell in part because he tweeted his intention to hold a press conference to disclose a major college basketball scandal allegedly perpetrated by Nike on the eve of March Madness. While risky, going public sooner rather than later has advantages.

According to the Recording Academy, Dugan was facing pressure for allegedly bullying Portnow's executive assistant. In the face of these accusations, she sent an email to human resources on Dec. 22 in which she listed a range of grievances, beginning with the way her appointment as CEO was leaked to the press before she had a chance to inform her children and prior employer. Her email also addressed how Katz had allegedly continued to pursue her romantically after she rebuffed his advances during a dinner meeting last May. She further told HR of her concerns about conflicts of interest on the executive committee of the nonprofit organization and hefty fees being spent on outside law firms.

"The issue that is of concern here is the unusual active and sustained interest the Executive Committee has taken in what amounts to a routine Human Resource issue — the simple redeployment of an executive assistant," continued her email, referencing the allegation that she bullied a coworker. "The fact that the Executive Committee has chosen to manufacture this crisis to my distinct disadvantage raises some serious questions of their creating a hostile and retaliatory work environment in order to derail my efforts at addressing serious fiduciary irregularities and concerning conflicts of interest."

An HR executive promised an investigation, but within weeks she was placed on leave following an allegation of misconduct. While the internal drama wasn't fully known, reporters were intrigued, and heavyweight observers like music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz began sounding alarms about how millions of dollars was being paid to lawyers without apparent purpose.

So what's Dugan's move? To go to court — or worse, arbitration — as Dana Tomarken did? (After working for more than 25 years at the charitable organization MusiCares, responsible for the Person of the Year fundraising event, Tomarken reached a settlement with the Recording Academy after complaining about a "boys club" and allegedly financially disastrous moves.)

No, what Dugan is doing is tantamount to an attempt to burn the house down — detailing in a complaint all the money that is being spent to cover up alleged abuse and showcasing how awards consideration may not always be born of merit. Her complaint with the EEOC includes claims that board members sit on secret committees and hand out nominations based on "personal or business relationships" or to "ensure that certain songs or albums are nominated when the producer of the Grammys wants a particular song performed during the show."

Perhaps she'll score a high-figure settlement as the parties attempt to save face. But that could depend on CBS' thoughts about the scandal, which in turn, may depend on whether viewership for the Grammys a few days from now dips. Justice in a court of law might be slow. But TV ratings come quick.