Ousted Recording Academy CEO Speaks Out Amid Controversy: 'I Believed I Could Make a Difference'

Deborah Dugan was placed on administrative leave by the Recording Academy after an allegation of misconduct by an employee

Deborah Dugan
Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Recording Academy CEO and president Deborah Dugan is speaking for the first time since filing a lawsuit after she was placed on administrative leave just days before the 2020 Grammy Awards.

On Tuesday, Dugan filed a claim that alleged unlawful gender discrimination, sexual harassment, unlawful retaliation and unequal pay by the Academy. The lawsuit came after the Recording Academy claimed her administrative leave was due to an allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the organization.

Dugan addressed the controversy on Good Morning America Thursday morning and alleged that Joel Katz, General Counsel for the Academy, had sexually harassed her.

“I was propositioned by the Grammy General Counsel,” she said in her GMA interview. “Starting with calling me ‘babe’ and saying how attractive I was and ‘pretty’ I was … the evening went on to [him] trying to kiss me,” she recalled. “All the way through I felt that I was being tested and how much would I acquiesce. I realized that was a power setting move just on the onset.”

Katz’s attorney, Howard Weitzman, denied Dugan’s allegations in a statement to Rolling Stone.

“Ms. Dugan’s allegations of harassment and her description of a dinner at the steakhouse in the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel are false and Mr. Katz categorically and emphatically denies her version of that evening,” the statement read. “This dinner meeting was two and half months before Ms. Dugan started her job. Mr. Katz believed they had a productive and professional meeting in a restaurant where a number of members of the board of trustees of the Academy, and others, were dining.”

Douglas Wigdor, Dugan’s attorney, said that the Grammys are on “life support right now” and reiterated that Dugan was not placed on administrative leave until “weeks after” she filed the complaint.

“All along I had been bringing up what was happening,” Dugan continued, further explaining that she never asked for action to be taken in response to her complaints because she “actually wanted to make a change from within.”

“I moved across the country. I had a great job. I believe in what the Recording Academy should stand for artists, and I was trying at each step to take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, I can make a difference,” she said. “I can fix this. I can work with this team. And when I first started and — at that first meeting with Joel, there was also a board meeting and I found out that there was a rape allegation against the former CEO. That had not been brought to the attention.”

In addition to her own complaint, Dugan also addressed issues of “conflicts of interest” within the Recording Academy when it came down to the Grammys show and its nominees and winners.

“There are incidents of conflict of interest. I couldn’t say more positive things about all the nominations. I can’t help but have to say there are conflicts of interest that go on,” she said.

Last week, the Recording Academy addressed the CEO’s administrative leave in a lengthy statement.

“In light of concerns raised to the Recording Academy Board of Trustees, including a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team, the board has placed Recording Academy President and CEO Deborah Dugan on administrative leave, effective immediately,” the Recording Academy’s statement read. “The board has also retained two independent third-party investigators to conduct independent investigations of the allegations.”

The statement continued, “The board determined this action to be necessary in order to restore the confidence of the Recording Academy’s membership, repair Recording Academy employee morale, and allow the Recording Academy to focus on its mission of serving all music creators. The Recording Academy Board of Trustees is committed to fostering a safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace, music industry, and society.”

In Dugan’s absence, Board Chair Harvey Mason Jr. will serve as interim president and CEO.

In a statement to PEOPLE, Dugan’s attorneys denied the misconduct allegations against her. The Recording Academy, meanwhile, denied the allegations contained in Dugan’s filing in a statement to Rolling Stone.

Dugan had been the head of the Recording Academy for just five months after being appointed in August 2019. She became the first female president and CEO of the organization last year, following allegations of gender bias against the Recording Academy, and after former president Neil Portnow stepped down in July 2019.

Portnow had received backlash for saying female artists need to “step up” following a controversial male-dominated Grammy Awards in 2018. (He later went on to apologize for his comments.)

Alicia Keys will return as host for this year’s Grammys, which will also feature performances from Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato, Lizzo and more.

The Grammy Awards will take place at Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 p.m. EST.

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