A guide to the major controversy, including allegations of corruption and sexual harassment.

By Ilana Kaplan
Jan 24, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

The 62nd annual Grammy Awards haven't even happened yet, but already there's enough drama to fill the three-hour live television event.

It started almost two years ago, when only one woman won a major award during the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremony, an outcome that led to the #GrammysSoMale hashtag and backlash against the voting process. In response, then-Recording Academy CEO and president Neil Portnow said in a statement to Variety that women needed to "step up" in order to gain recognition at the Grammy Awards, a comment that incited outrage (and a firey response from Pink). Shortly after the event, Portnow stepped down from his position, and Deborah Dugan was appointed to take his place. It seemed as if the legacy organization was turning a corner.

The events were telling of the systemic change that needed to happen — and with a woman at the helm with a new vision, an evolution seemed possible. But fostering representation and equality within the Recording Academy isn’t something that could happen overnight. And things have only gotten more complicated from there. 

Ahead of the Grammy Awards this Sunday, Jan. 25, here’s a primer on the many controversies surrounding both the Recording Academy and the awards show.

The End of Deborah Dugan’s Reign

In August 2019, Deobrah Dugan succeeded Neil Portnow as the first female president and CEO of the Recording Academy, a non-profit organization that represents musicians and professionals and organizes the Grammys. Last month, Dugan told press there was a “major restructuring” happening at the Academy to address bias. These changes were based on recommendations from a task force that was formed in February 2019 to investigate the issues that led to the lack of diversity during the Grammys in previous years.

The restructuring, Dugan said, would “allow for immediate diversity.” But just 10 days before this year’s ceremony, it was announced that Dugan was put on administrative leave. With her ouster came a statement from the Recording Academy's board of trustees that said there had been "a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team" that led to Dugan’s suspension. Recording Academy Chairman Harvey Mason Jr. has since taken Dugan’s place as interim president and CEO.

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The timing was peculiar given the change that Dugan was touting. The fact that the only woman who had ever held the president and CEO position was being put on leave less than two weeks before the ceremony also raised eyebrows. The boot seemed to send a clear message: The Recording Academy was not embracing as much change as Dugan was.

According to Variety, however, internal battles between Dugan and the Academy were happening from nearly the start.

Dugan's Lawsuit

Dugan has not left quietly. On Jan. 21, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Recording Academy, in which she made several serious allegations — including that Portnow had raped a female recording artist. Portnow denied the allegations, calling them "ludicrous and untrue" in a statement. 

Dugan also claimed that she was sexually harassed by Recording Academy attorney Joel Katz. She told George Stephanapoulos in aGMA interviewon Thursday that she was “propositioned” by Katz, who called her “babe” and commented on how “attractive” and “pretty” she was. Then, she recalled, he tried to kiss her. “All the way through I felt that I was being tested ... I realized that was a power setting move just on the onset.” Katz has denied these claims. 

In her complaint, she also cited “egregious conflicts of interest” and “voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards.” Additionally, she claimed that there were “exorbitant and unnecessary” payments to law firms outside the Academy, and that her emails were under surveillance and were “being shared with Academy executives by her assistant, Claudine Little, who was previously Portnow’s assistant.” Despite Portnow stepping down, the suit claimed she was asked to distribute a $750,000 consulting contract to him.

Dugan reported her claims in a memo to HR, but asked them not to take action. However, a series of independent investigations were launched into her allegations — as well as the misconduct allegation made against her. (More on that below.) Three weeks later, she was placed on leave.

"Ms. Dugan was placed on administrative leave only after offering to step down and demanding $22 million from the Academy, which is a not-for-profit organization," the Recording Academy said in a statement to CNN.

Dugan's reps claim that "the decision to put Ms. Dugan on leave was clearly made in retaliation for her complaint, and came with thinly veiled threats of termination in the event that Ms. Dugan persisted in pursuing claims against the Academy." 

The Misconduct Allegation Against Dugan

The reported accuser is Little, whose complaints against Dugan include allegations that she was “rude” and “dismissive.” An insider told Variety that Dugan “didn’t make any friends [at the Academy]. It’s too bad, because when you are someone like her and people say they want you to make change, you are supposedly empowered by that task.” The source added that if the Academy didn’t actually want change, Dugan was "screwed.”

A Potential Settlement

Insiders told Variety that a settlement of $8 million had been discussed with Dugan. But the Academy allegedly rescinded their initial offer and then came back with a smaller number. Supposedly, this is what became a large point of contention between Dugan and the Academy.

“Ms. Dugan did not accept the Board’s revised settlement proposal, and, immediately after the time to accept expired, the Board made the blatantly retaliatory decision to put Ms. Dugan on administrative leave,” her complaint reads.

RELATED: See the Grammys 2020 Ballot Before the Official Show

The Accusations of Voting Bias at the Grammys

In Dugan’s complaint, she claims there were “secret committees” where board members would use their influence and connections to “push” artists they had connections to, including clients. In her interview with GMA, Dugan discussed the manipulation of the Grammys: “I'm saying that the system should be transparent and that there are incidents, conflicts of interest, that taint the results.”

The Recording Academy released a statement on Thursday denying the allegations leveled by Dugan: "Spurious allegations claiming members or committees use our process to push forward nominations for artists they have relationships with are categorically false, misleading and wrong. This process is strictly enforced with everyone involved and has no exceptions."

What's Next? 

Despite misconduct allegations against Dugan, it seems she was doomed from the start in trying to implement change in a “boys' club” institution. Now, even in the interim, a man is in charge of the Recording Academy once again. One step forward, about 100 steps back.

The Grammy Awards will be broadcast on Jan. 25. 

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