Viacom Exec Claims She Was Fired Over Opposition to Tax-Dodging Scheme

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Still 2 - H 2015

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in New York federal court, Nataki Williams claims to have been fired after voicing opposition to an alleged tax-dodging scheme.

Williams says she worked at Viacom for seven years as a vice president for financial planning and analysis and during this time received two "Presidential Awards." She presents herself as a whistleblower protected by corporate finance laws including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Dodd-Frank Act. She asserts that Viacom fired her as retaliation, though Viacom tells The Hollywood Reporter that she was terminated for fraudulently claiming company benefits to which she was not entitled.

In her lawsuit, Williams focuses on money from the company's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, though suggests that a tax-dodging scheme may have also been intended for the Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants franchises.

According to the complaint, "In April of 2010, shortly after Ms. Williams was promoted to Vice President, she learned that Viacom was hatching a plan to attribute TMNT's revenue to the Netherlands for tax purposes."

Williams acknowledges that TMNT is an entity set up in the Netherlands, but says that all business decisions including licensing and contracts are negotiated in New York.

"The sole purpose of transferring the licensing rights to the Netherlands company was to avoid the U.S. tax burden," she states in the lawsuit. "Her belief in the illegality of this scheme was further solidified after Ms. Williams learned that in order to make the business transactions look legitimately like they were being conducted from the Netherlands, Viacom schemed to have a Netherlands-based employee, Linda Kirby, make unimportant changes to draft contracts and sign off on contracts."

Williams reports that superiors would joke about "not looking good in orange," and that she and other Viacom employees spoke out against the plan. She points to another senior vice president, Shen-Hsin Hung, as allegedly being fired for also opposing the plan.

The lawsuit says that in 2010, when the value of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was low, Viacom shelved its Netherlands plan by assigning rights back to the U.S. and paying "taxes on what [was] relatively [the] small amount of revenue that TMNT generated prior to the launch of the TMNT film in 2014."

But Williams continues that in 2013, she learned that Viacom was reintroducing the Netherlands plan for TMNT and also aimed to have it include Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. "She heard her superiors say that it would save Viacom millions of dollars," says the lawsuit.

The objections allegedly continued, and Williams says she was fired in April 2014, 12 weeks after she left for maternity leave.

"The reason given for her termination was that she had listed her partner, and father of her child, as her spouse on Viacom's benefits paperwork," states the complaint, which denies she misrepresented her marital status and demands reinstatement of her pay and an award of back pay.

Viacom presents her termination as a fraudulent attempt at claiming benefits, and in a statement, a spokesperson adds, "Her legal claims are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend against these claims in court.”