For years, music fans have complained about the Grammys denying women and people of colour rightful nominations. Now, former president and CEO of the Recording Academy Deborah Dugan alleges that the nominations are indeed rigged in a new complaint against the Recording Academy. The complaint is making waves in the industry, and also includes a slew of other disturbing allegations about the organization which she deems a “boy’s club.”
Dugan was hired in May of 2019 by the Recording Academy following the exit of former president Neil Portnow, who came under fire for telling women artists to “step up” following a lack of representation at the 2018 Grammys. Dugan became the first female president the Recording Academy had in their 62-year history, and was warmly received by the media.
Then, in January — just six months into the job — Dugan was removed from her position. Her ousting was due to an “allegation of misconduct” by Claudia Little, an executive assistant, who claims Dugan had a “bullying” management style. In Dugan’s complaint, per Pitchfork, she states that she believes the board put pressure on Little to make misconduct claims against Dugan in order for the board to remove her from the position.
In response, Dugan filed a formal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Dugan claims that the process of Grammy nominations is “corrupted” in favor of artists for whom board members have relationships with.
Dugan details the alleged flaws in the Grammys nomination selection process. The first round of nominations are voted upon by the Academy’s 12,000 members, and the top 20 selections which received the most votes are then reviewed by the nominating committee. Dugan alleges that the committee does not always stick to the top 20 lists when choosing which artists, songs, and records to grant nominations to, and that they can select the nominations regardless of the number of votes they received in their categories.
Dugan also cites general counsel Joel Katz and Chuck Ortner’s alleged conflict of interests that allow them to potentially sway the Recording Academy’s nominations. Per Dugan’s complaint, Katz and Ortner represent artists, board members, and “other entities and individuals in the music industry with personal interests in decision making at the Academy.” Katz and Ortner have the ability to pull favors to get the people they wish to unjust Grammy nominations, Dugan alleges.
Songs that producer Ken Erlich wants performed at the Grammy ceremony, Dugan claims, are specifically pushed to receive award nominations no matter where they fall in the top 20.
In addition to the allegedly corrupted nominations process, Dugan’s complaint details how the Grammys organization allegedly facilitated a toxic work environment that included sexual harassment, racial and gender discrimination, and a plot to oust her from her position by putting pressure on her former executive assistant to make “baseless legal claims” against her.
Dugan alleges that she sent an email on December 22, 2019 that detailed inappropriate behaviour by Katz while the two were out to dinner in May of 2019, prior to her accepting the job at the Recording Academy. Such behaviour allegedly included suggestive comments and an attempt from Katz to kiss her. She wrote that his behaviour continued after their initial meeting. The Recording Academy denied such allegations in a statement to Pitchfork/ Refinery29 reached out to the organization for additional comment.
“Over the course of the evening, Mr. Katz explained to me that he was very, very rich and had many houses, one in Bermuda and other locations,” Dugan writes in the complaint, per The Wrap. “And he reminded me that he had a private plane and informed me that he was lonely and had no one to spend time with.”
Dugan also alleged that during a board meeting in May of 2019, she was informed of a rape accusation against Portnow by an unnamed artist. The full board was allegedly not informed of the accusation before they were set to vote on whether or not to give him a bonus following his time at the Academy. Dugan claims she refused to hire Portnow on as a consultant — to the price tag of $750,000 USD — following his exit.
Portnow strongly denies Dugan’s claims in a statement to Billboard, calling the allegations of rape “ludicrous and untrue” and Dugan’s complaint “filled with inaccurate, false and outrageous and terribly hurtful claims.”
"The baseless complaint about my conduct referenced in the EEOC filing was immediately brought to the attention of the Board of Directors Executive Committee,” Portnow’s statement continues. “An in-depth independent investigation by experienced and highly regarded lawyers was conducted and I was completely exonerated. There was no basis for the allegations and once again I deny them unequivocally."
Other allegations include those of racial and gender discrimination. Dugan states that she was paid less than Portnow for the same position, despite asking for equal compensation. She also shared stories of other female employees who spoke up about issues within the Recording Academy, only to be pressured to leave their position lest they be terminated.
In one situation, Dugan writes of a Black, gay temporary worker who suffered mental health issues after a racist drawing of them was displayed for “months” at work. The person who put up the drawing was fired, Dugan writes, but no one else involved in the situation was terminated or reprimanded for their behaviour.
Refinery29 reached out to Katz, Ortner, and the Recording Academy for comment.