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CBS denies former CEO Les Moonves $120 million severance

NEW YORK (AP) — CBS announced Monday that former CEO Les Moonves will not receive his $120 million severance package after the board of directors concluded he violated company policy and was uncooperative with an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations.

The decision, which came after a five-month outside investigation, capped the downfall of one of television’s most influential figures, the biggest entertainment powerbroker to see his career derailed amid the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct.

A lawyer for Moonves said the board’s conclusion “are without merit” but did not say whether the former CEO would challenge it in arbitration.

Moonves was ousted in September after allegations from women who said he subjected them to mistreatment including forced oral sex, groping and retaliation if they resisted.

“This is an important reminder that harassment happens everywhere, and that in this moment, even someone who has been perceived as untouchable will be held accountable,” said Fatima Goss Graves, a co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance to victims of assault, harassment or abuse. “I hope other corporations are learning that lesson.”

New York-based CBS Corp. said at the time of Moonves’ departure that it had set aside $120 million in severance for him but warned that he would not get the money if the board concluded it had cause to terminate him.

“We have determined that there are grounds to terminate for cause, including his willful and material misfeasance, violation of company policies and breach of his employment contract, as well as his willful failure to cooperate fully with the company’s investigation,” the CBS said in a statement.

The board did not provide details. Earlier this month, The New York Times said a draft report from the outside investigation found that Moonves deleted numerous text messages and was “evasive and untruthful at times.”

Andrew Levander, an attorney for Moonves, said his client “vehemently denies any non-consensual sexual relations and cooperated extensively and fully with investigators.”

“Consistent with the pattern of leaks that have permeated this ‘process,’ the press was informed of these baseless conclusions before Mr. Moonves, further damaging his name, reputation, career and legacy,” Levander said.

Moonves had been widely admired for turning around the fortunes of CBS when he took over as entertainment chief in 1995 with hits as “Two and a Half Men” and “Survivor.” He was also one of the highest-paid executives in the nation, making about $70 million in each of the past two years.

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents four women who have accused Moonves of misconduct, called on CBS to publicly release the details of the investigators’ findings and compensate those with provable misconduct claims.

“The public has a right to know who at CBS was aware of Mr. Moonves’ alleged misconduct and when they knew of it,” said Allred, whose clients all spoke to the investigators. “Instead of keeping this money and rewarding their corporation for Mr. Moonves’ alleged misconduct, they should share these many millions with those who can prove that they are victims.”

Three major figures at CBS have lost their jobs over misconduct allegations: Moonves, “60 Minutes” top executive Jeff Fager, and news anchor Charlie Rose.

Last week, CBS acknowledged that it reached a $9.5 million confidential settlement last year with actress Eliza Dushku, who said she was written off the show “Bull” in March 2017 after complaining about on-set sexual comments from its star, Michael Weatherly.

The board said the investigation, which was conducted by two outside law firms, “concluded that harassment and retaliation are not pervasive at CBS.”

Still, the board said investigators “learned of past incidents of improper and unprofessional conduct” and that CBS has not placed a “high institutional priority on preventing harassment and retaliation.”

The 11-member board, which includes six new members who came aboard during a shake-up following Moonves’ ouster, said it has “already begun to take robust steps to improve the working environment for all employees.”

In a move criticized by women’s rights activists, CBS had previously said Moonves would stay on as an adviser for up to two years, providing him with office and security services. The board did not say whether that decision remained in effect.

CBS declined to comment beyond its statement.

Last week, the CBS revealed a list of 18 women’s rights organizations that would receive $20 million donations with funds the company had previously said would be deducted from Moonves’ severance.

The groups, which included Time’s Up, praised the donations but called on CBS to publicly disclose the results of the Moonves investigation. It was unclear if CBS would do so.

Some activists involved in the #MeToo movement have praised CBS for hiring outside legal firms to conduct the investigation, a decision that contrasted with NBC’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Lauer, who was fired last year as host of the “Today” show host. NBC’s investigation, which was overseen by the company’s general counsel, concluded that there was no culture of harassment at the news division.

A search for a new CEO is ongoing to replace interim CEO Joe Ianniello. Strauss Zelnick, filling Moonves’ role as board chairman on an interim basis, said at a shareholders’ meeting last week that a recruiting firm has been hired to conduct the search and that a decision will be made in due course.

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