Hollywood Lawyers Up Amid Harassment Claims: Who Knew What and When?

Harrassment Illustration - H 2017
Illustration by Skip Sterling

Tip of the iceberg. That has become a common and terrifying phrase as the circle of Hollywood men accused of sexual misdeeds widens, enveloping Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Dustin Hoffman, WME agent Adam Venit and others. As a result, Hollywood attorneys say their phones are ringing nonstop with calls from accusers as well as the accused.

Since Oct. 5, when The New York Times first published sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, litigator Mark Geragos says his phone has been ringing like never before. "We have been inundated with calls and prospective clients who are terrified of the publicity and blowback," says Geragos. Attorney Marty Singer, who reps Ratner, says he's seen a marked uptick in incoming calls lately.

And former Los Angeles County public defender turned showbiz litigator Shawn Holley says she is fielding representation requests from men who are accused of past wrongdoing and women whose buried memories have been resurrected. "Almost all of the women I've spoken with are still trying to figure out what, if anything, they want to do," says Holley, adding her clients are exploring civil as well as possible criminal remedies. "The men have usually received some correspondence from someone with whom they haven't spoken in many, many, many, many years. The men maintain their innocence but are understandably fearful of what might happen in this charged climate."

Indeed, industry women (and some men) are coming forward with horror stories in numbers never before seen. And journalists are chasing tip after tip pointing to claims of abuse, systemic impropriety and far-reaching cover-ups. Agencies, studios, networks and law firms are being scrutinized for their roles in enabling, concealing and even participating in the behavior.

Since claims that Ratner sexually harassed and forced himself on at least six women were published by the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 1, Warner Bros. has been in crisis mode, trying to distance its executives from Ratner and his RatPac Entertainment, a studio slate-financing partner. With parent Time Warner poised to be acquired by AT&T in an $85 billion deal, Warners CEO Kevin Tsujihara has no room for bad optics. The studio moved quickly to remove Ratner from his plum offices. But his specter looms, with the possibility that executives could be tarnished if other allegations come to light.

Some lawyers, like Weinstein's David Boies, find themselves in the spotlight for their tactics in shielding clients from claims. On Nov. 6, The New Yorker reported in stunning detail how Boies hired ex-Mossad agents to track and dupe female accusers into revealing which journalists they were talking to in an effort to prevent the Times and others from publishing damaging stories.

Also getting a closer look are the talent agencies. "The powerful agents knew about Harvey, but it was more important to maintain their relationship with him," says one longtime producer who declined to be named, lest he come under scrutiny. "Both sides had a mutual benefit to make it go away. That's the real cover-up."

In the Weinstein case, no agency had stronger ties to the indie mogul than CAA, which repped The Weinstein Co. in its various sale attempts over the past three years, as well as many of the actresses — some of them accusers, some not — who have won Oscars in recent years in TWC films. One question being posed to the 90-plus Weinstein accusers is: Did you tell your agent, and what did he or she do?

Actress Rae Dawn Chong says she was repped by CAA in 1989-90 when she was sent to CAA client Steven Seagal's hotel for a 9:30 p.m. audition that allegedly devolved quickly into sexual harassment, with Seagal exposing himself. "Kevin Huvane was my agent," she says of the now-CAA managing partner. "Did I call him after and tell him what happened and say how violated and fucked up it was? Yes. And did CAA take the position of, 'We'll protect you'? No. It became, 'Rae Dawn Chong's difficult.' And it did impact my career. Obviously, I left CAA promptly, because it was like a pimp situation."

Huvane tells THR: "Protecting clients has always been my top priority. I would never knowingly put a client at risk. What Ms. Chong describes having happened sounds horrible, and I have great sympathy for her."

Several women have come forward in recent weeks to share similar stories about Seagal, who was a top CAA client at the time. And in her account of Weinstein harassment, Gwyneth Paltrow told the Times that her agency set up the hotel meeting. "It's on the fax, it's from CAA," she said.

CAA isn't the only talent shop taking heat. Primary Wave co-founder David Guillod, a prominent manager of actresses including Gina Rodriguez, stepped down after another client, Ted co-star Jessica Barth, claimed he drugged and assaulted her in 2012. APA agent Tyler Grasham was fired after sexual assault claims emerged. And on Nov. 3, WME's Venit went on leave after being identified as the subject of Terry Crews' account of sexual assault. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine star — and WME client — tweeted that a "high-level Hollywood executive" had groped his "privates" at a party in 2016.

Both CAA and WME convened staff meetings Nov. 6 to address the harassment situation. In a climate where victims are coming forward with unheard-of candor, it is possible that more agents will be outed for sexually inappropriate behavior or simply putting their clients in harm's way. After all, many are asking: "How many hotel meetings with the same perpetrator could have been innocently overlooked?"

The surge in prominent claims isn't just keeping lawyers busy evaluating potential litigation; it's also having a tangible effect on entertainment companies. "Employees who feel victimized are now much more comfortable sharing their experiences with supervisors and human resources departments," says employment litigator Daniel Handman. The first of what is expected to be a flood of claims against The Weinstein Co. was filed in late October.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, who represented Weinstein until she stepped down amid widespread backlash after the rape allegations came to light, says she is handling potential claims against other high-profile Hollywood figures. Bloom says her firm has been swamped with calls from alleged victims. Meanwhile, Gloria Allred, Bloom's mother, who's been handling harassment and assault cases for 40 years, says the activity she's seeing is unprecedented.

Allred is contacting women who have talked to the media and are now wondering what their next steps should be. "I have a number of people who are within the statute of limitations to file a police report, but that doesn't mean they will," she says. "There are certainly going to be civil cases. I'll be filing some."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.