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Recording Academy accused of backtracking on promises of transparency in former CEO’s arbitration

By | Published on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Deborah Dugan

It feels like ages since we’ve had a good Grammy Awards related dispute. Luckily, there’s a brand new dispute over an old dispute. The arbitration hearing in relation to the dismissal, by Grammys owner the Recording Academy, of its former CEO Deborah Dugan is set to take place next month. Her lawyers are now accusing the organisation of trying to renege on a promise to hold those proceedings in public.

The hearing is set to begin on 12 Jul, examining exactly what led to Dugan to be fired just months into the CEO role. The Recording Academy has now requested that the hearing take place behind closed doors, although it has said that it is happy for the findings of the investigation to be made public.

Dugan was hired by the Academy in late 2019 with a brief to shake things up at the organisation and its annual Grammy Awards, in particular dealing with the diversity issues that had dogged the latter part of her predecessor Neil Portnow’s tenure.

But just before the 2020 Grammys, Dugan was put on administrative leave by the Academy’s board. They said that they were responding to a complaint of bullying by a staff member against Dugan. She said that she was being pushed out because the Academy didn’t actually want to be shaken up.

She then filed an explosive legal document with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in LA. In it she set out a long list of allegations against the Academy, its board, its committees and its legal advisors, who were variously accused of corruption, misogyny, financial self-serving, sexual harassment and vote fixing.

Since then, the Academy has made various efforts to counteract accusations about corruption and a lack of fairness in the awards – including changing how elements of the nominations process work. This hasn’t convinced everyone though, not least The Weeknd, who boycotted this year’s Grammys ceremony after failing to receive any nominations – something he claimed was a punishment for performing at the Super Bowl half time show just before this year’s awards event.

In February 2020, as the formal legal process got underway, then Chair – now CEO – of the Recording Academy, Harvey Mason Jr, sent a letter to Dugan saying that the organisation was agreeing to waive the confidentiality provision in the arbitration clause in her employment contract.

In his letter, he said: “The Recording Academy has absolutely nothing to hide, and, in fact, welcomes the opportunity to tell its story so that the entire music community and the world can hear the truth – and nothing but the truth – about what you did to this proud institution during your brief tenure as president/CEO. In short, we welcome a full public airing of your allegations against the Academy as well as the Academy’s many claims and defences against you”.

Dugan always wanted any proceedings to be public, and her legal team is now claiming that the Academy’s efforts to have the arbitration take place in private backtracks on commitments made in Mason’s letter.

According to the New York Times, one of Dugan’s attorneys, Michael J Willemin, wrote to arbitrator Sara Adler last week calling for the hearing to remain open. He wrote: “The simple, undeniable fact is that the parties agreed to open this proceeding to the public, and, therefore, it must be open to the public unless Ms Dugan agrees otherwise”.

The Academy’s lawyers disagree, saying that no commitment regarding the entire arbitration process was ever made. Representing its legal team, Anthony J Oncidi says that Mason’s letter merely agreed to make public “the existence, content or result of any arbitration” and that the organisation “was and is willing to make public the results of this arbitration, and the reasoning for those results, and nothing more”.

Making the whole hearing public, he went on, would reveal other confidential information and cause “further emotional distress” to witnesses.

A decision on whether to close the hearing to the public is yet to be made, although this seems like yet another own goal for the Academy, allowing Dugan to gain more ground in the PR war between her and her former employer. Whether she can win the actual legal battle remains to be seen.