Les Moonves’s CBS Salary Grab Is Unseemly

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A flood of sexual-harassment allegations have been made against powerful men in various corners of the media industry and elsewhere during the past couple of years, prompting an unprecedented reckoning that toppled many of them and tarnished their reputations. Now, after judgment has been passed, questions are cropping up, such as when, if ever, should the accused be allowed to transition from pariah back into their careers and public prominence? Are they even remorseful? And can they ever push back?

Leslie Moonves, for his part, is pushing back. The former chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., who was taken down by a series of accusations of sexual misconduct, notified the company this week that he will pursue binding arbitration to fight for the $120 million severance package that was denied to him after an internal investigation. 

For those catching up on his story, here is a recap: Last year, a dozen women came forward with accusations that Moonves sexually harassed or assaulted them, including instances of forced oral sex, in detailed accounts provided to the New Yorker. The stories painted a picture that such behavior wasn’t atypical for the longtime TV executive, but rather business as usual. A report later put together by lawyers hired by CBS to investigate the matter would seem to back this up. A draft of the report seen by the New York Times said that Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace,” and that they found him to be “evasive and untruthful.” It also included previously undisclosed allegations, according to the Times. (Moonves, 69, has denied the accusations, though his initial statement to the New Yorker said that he regrets “mistakes” he made “decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances.”)

CBS’s board came to the unsurprising conclusion last month that there were grounds to fire Moonves “for cause” — the key words that prevented him from receiving the lofty payout. As he challenges their decision, CBS will have to foot the legal bill, per a line in his termination agreement that says Moonves will retain indemnification rights, including for related attorney’s fees. Moonves’s take-home pay in fiscal 2017 was about $114 million, including all stock vested and options exercised during the year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. He was ranked as the 15th highest-paid CEO on the Bloomberg Pay Index. 

Les Moonves’s CBS Salary Grab Is Unseemly

Moonves’s fight comes as other disgraced media and Hollywood bigwigs start to come out of the woodwork again. There has been an awful lot of tabloid coverage lately of what former “Today” show host Matt Lauer is up to, along with speculation that he may be trying to make his way back to TV. CBS News also recently reached a settlement with three women who had accused its morning-show host, Charlie Rose, of sexual harassment and sued the company for its part in failing to investigate complaints made against him. Comedian Louis C.K., who has admitted to sexual misconduct, is back doing his stand-up shows, even making jokes on topics that some say are too close for comfort to the behavior he’s been accused of in the past. 

An extraordinary new documentary on Lifetime about R. Kelly’s alleged pedophilia and predatory behavior with young women and girls has caused renewed outrage and led to a series of apologies by other musicians who have worked with him. He’s skirted legal repercussions in the past, and at least according to celebrity gossip outlet TMZ, he’s threatening to sue Lifetime. 

I don’t have the answers to the questions posed at the start of this article — particularly, whether those who allegedly abused their power should be accepted by society again. But what I do know from covering CBS is that the network could have been a leader in this #MeToo movement, but instead seemed to spurn every opportunity (the Eliza Dushku situation in 2017 is a recent example). Now, Moonves shamelessly pursuing his severance feels like a slap in the face to victims that threatens to undermine some of the progress made. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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