Ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan details rampant Grammys corruption, discrimination in EEOC complaint

Outrageous conflicts of interest, outsized spending, and rape allegations outlined in new complaint

Deborah Dugan Recording Academy CEO Grammys 2020 EEOC Complaint corruption sexual harassment
Deborah Dugan, photo by Amanda Friedman via Recording Academy

    Deborah Dugan, the suspended President and CEO of the Recording Academy, has detailed an upsetting range of corruption and impropriety offenses against the not-for-profit organization behind the Grammys. The allegations are outlined in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint Dugan filed four days after being forced to take administrative leave by the Academy.

    The complaint was publicized by one of Dugan’s attorneys, Douglas Wigdor, who also represents 20 women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. In a tweeted statement, Wigdor compared the Recording Academy’s tactics to “those deployed by individuals defending Harvey Weinstein.”

    Much of Dugan’s complaint highlights an ingrained “boys’ club” mentality at the Academy. The damning accusations detail how rampant voter corruption in the Grammys nomination process has led to a wildly disproportionate number of white, male artists receiving awards. Submissions for nominations are first voted upon by a 12,000-member voting body. The top 20 submissions are then ranked from one to 20 based on that voting. That list is then handed to secretive Board-appointed “nomination review committees,” which an Academy-established Task Force determined was made up of 74% males between 2015 and 2017.


    It’s the nomination review committees’ job to narrow down that 20-name list to five or eight (category depending), and that’s where the alleged corruption seeps in. The Academy Board reportedly has a habit of pushing forward artists with whom they already have established relationships, and in some cases those that Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich wants to perform during the ceremony. The Board has the power to add any artists to the submitted lists; apparently, 30 artists who had not received top-20 votes were subsequently given nomination consideration for this year’s awards.

    (Read: 2020 Grammy Awards: Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, Thom Yorke earn multiple nominations)

    Making matters worse, the Board can and has taken artists who are up for a nomination and placed them on the voting committee. According to Dugan’s complaint, this led an unidentified artist getting a 2019 Song of the Year nomination despite coming in at 18 on the 20-name list. Not only was this artist on the Song of the Year committee, they had a representative on the Board. Their Song of the Year nod took away possible recognition from Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande, whom the voting memberships had ranked higher.

    The purported corruption isn’t just present in the voting ranks, either. Former Board member and Board Chair Joel Katz is currently an attorney for the Grammys; not only has his firm been paid over $15 million for “legal work over a period of only a few years,” but Katz receives $250,000 plus reimbursements “to be on call in the event the Board needs any legal advice.” Again, the Recording Academy is a not-for-profit organization.


    Katz currently sits on the board of the Grammy Museum alongside Chuck Ortner. They both represent Board members (Katz actually reps Dugan’s interim replacement Board Chair Harvey Mason Jr.), artists, and other music industry professionals and entities — all of whom would have a personal interest in the Academy’s decisions.

    Within a week of taking over as President/CEO, Dugan claims she was asked to approve a $250,000 “consulting” retainer for Ortner. Recognizing the impropriety, she publicly expressed a plan to hire an in-house attorney, a move which would have saved millions of dollars. Instead, the Academy reportedly increased its payments to Katz and Ortner.

    And it gets even worse. In her complaint, Dugan further alleges that she was sexually harassed by Katz. Prior to taking on her duties at the Academy, Dugan was invited to take part in the first of a three-day Academy Board meeting in May 2019. Ahead of the meeting, she was asked by Katz to a private dinner. The complaint says Dugan “was perplexed by this request,” but agreed to meet “so not to upset the applecart before she even began her work at the Academy.” Noting that Katz’s choice of restaurant was “very expensive” and that he “ordered an outrageously expensive bottle of wine,” Dugan claims the lawyer “acted extremely inappropriately” throughout the meal.


    (Read: The Grammys Fall Back on Past Traditions: Racism, Misogyny, and Irrelevancy)

    Katz apparently referred to Dugan primarily as “baby,” continually calling her “very pretty.” He talked about how he was “lonely” after his divorce, and bragged about being “very, very rich” with multiple homes (including one in Bermuda) and a private plane. He asked her to “spend time” with him “traveling to my many homes,” saying it “could be something nice for us to share.” Despite Dugan rebuffing his advances and stating “she was in a committed relationship,” Katz attempted to kiss Dugan as the night ended. “Ms. Dugan quickly turned away, repulsed,” notes the complaint.

    Even in later meetings, Katz allegedly continued to call Dugan “baby.”

    That’s far from the end of the sexual misconduct at the Academy. Day two of the May Board meeting featured a presentation from Tina Tchen, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, President of Time’s Up, and head of the Academy’s discrimination and equality Task Force. However, just before Tchen took the podium, “Ms. Dugan was hauled into a conference room and told — for the very first time — that a foreign recording artist (and member of the Academy) had accused” Dugan’s predecessor, Neil Portnow, of rape.

    According to the complaint, the Board had learned of the accusation before Dugan had agreed to become CEO, but neither she nor the full Board had been informed. Shockingly, before informing Dugan of the rape allegations, they had asked her to bring Portnow on as a consultant — with a $750,00 salary — and were planning a vote on giving him an additional bonus. Dugan put a stop to both actions.


    Portnow infamously stepped down from the Academy following misogynistic remarks he made following the 2018 Grammys. He said women had to “step up” if they wanted more awards recognition. However, Dugan believes the alleged rape was the real reason he was ousted.

    All of this has come to light because of the core of the EEOC complaint: the reason the Academy forced Dugan to take a leave of absence. In his statement announcing the disciplinary action against Dugan (a statement, it seems, he assured Dugan he wouldn’t be making), interim CEO Mason said she’d been accused of a “bullying management style” in a complaint leveled “by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.”

    In Dugan’s complaint, she identifies this “senior female member” as Claudine Little, former Executive Assistant to Portnow. Instead of hiring her own EA, Dugan chose to keep Little on. However, Dugan quickly became dissatisfied with Little’s capabilities, as she “did not consistently forward messages” and “did not know how to manage an Outlook calendar.” Despite this, Little remained employed as Dugan worked “with her, as well as HR and an outside consultant” to find her a new position.


    (Read: Top 50 Albums of 2019)

    Ultimately, Little took what was intended to be a month-long leave of absence from October to November 25th 2019. When it became clear she wouldn’t be returning, the Executive Committee “began interrogating” Dugan. Not only did the Executive Committee disagree with Dugan’s handling of “the Little situation,” they began critiquing her “for random things,” such as her consultant hiring decisions and limiting who was present at certain meetings.

    On December 9th, Dugan received an email from Mason, then Chair of the Board. The email stripped Dugan of the ability to “hire or terminate staff members without Board approval,” assign “any new initiatives or special projects to staff members for at least two months” (which would be after the 2020 Grammys), and choose “outside counsel.”

    When she complained about the mandates to Katz, he reportedly suggested she “ignore” them. In the same discussion, he also said he could get her “many free dresses so that she could ‘look pretty’ at Academy events’ if she named Neiman Marcus, one of his clients, as a Grammys sponsor.


    Dugan responded to Mason on December 16th, suggesting that the new rules were purposefully aimed at curbing her push for “greater diversity among our staff, the board, and our membership.” The lack of further response from Mason or the Board led to her filing a complaint with the Academy’s HR department on December 22nd.

    Dugan’s other attorney, Bryan Freedman, alerted the Academy that she planned on pursuing legal claims stemming from her complaints. The complaint says an agreement in principle was reached, but before the deal could be formalized, the Board issued a revised settlement proposal and gave Dugan only one hour to accept. She refused, and was then put on leave.

    The EEOC complaint further outlines legal threats the Board made should Dugan discuss the situation with the press — an action the Academy itself took by publicizing the news of her leave. (Attorneys for the Board also happen to represent a number of publications that would benefit from such leaks.)


    The whole thing is laid out as if each action taken by the Board was in direct retaliation to Dugan’s refusal to step in line and her desire to change corrupt, discriminatory practices of the Recording Academy. With the Grammys just five days away (Sunday, January 26th), it will surely be interesting to see how this all plays out.

    Read Dugan’s full EEOC complaint below.