Pop Culture

Leak of Bombshell CBS Investigation Led to Multimillion-Dollar Settlement

In the summer of 2018, CBS hired two prominent law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton and Covington & Burling, to conduct an investigation into the sexual-misconduct allegations swirling around Les Moonves—CEO of CBS Corporation at the time—and the CBS News unit. Under the promise of confidentiality, a number of people spoke to the two law firms, told them what they knew about Moonves and the allegations against him, and assumed what they said to the law firms would be kept confidential. That, of course, is one of the main reasons big corporations hire law firms, and pay them millions of dollars in fees, to do such investigations. The inviolate promise of confidentiality is essential to getting witnesses to share secrets and other embarrassing or private information.

You may recall that what prompted the legal investigation into Moonves’s alleged behavior was a long and damning July 2018 article by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker. After Farrow published a second article in The New Yorker, in September 2018, and Vanity Fair published an article a few hours later about an incident involving Moonves and his Los Angeles doctor, Anne L. Peters, M.D., Moonves stepped down, and the probe got underway.

In December 2018, a 59-page draft of the report written by the legal teams at Debevoise and Covington was leaked to The New York Times. According to the Times, it was used as justification by CBS to deny Moonves the $120 million severance payment that Moonves claimed he was owed under his contract. Essentially, the lawyers’ report was a way to deny him compensation for cause. (Moonves has denied the allegations against him.) The ongoing dispute between Moonves and CBS—now known as ViacomCBS, following the 2019 merger of Viacom and CBS—about Moonves’s severance will be resolved by three arbitrators, in New York City, who are expected to take up the matter later this year, according to a source. (The pandemic has delayed the process.)

Now we’ve learned there was also another legal matter arising out of the leak of the draft report, which was an indisputable violation of the witnesses’ expectation of privacy. Three sources familiar with the matter tell us that a settlement was reached with someone who claimed a breach of confidentiality after the Times got its hands on the draft report. The cost of the settlement, according to these sources, was born by CBS and Covington. The amount reached was rumored to be in the tens of millions, and one person with knowledge of the situation pegged it as being in the “low eight figures,” noting the settlement was reached in the fall of 2019—just before the CBS–Viacom deal closed—and that it was based in part on an allegation that the leak violated witness confidentiality. (Sources also said no formal legal complaint was filed.) One of the sources told us that Moonves and his lawyer, Andrew Levander, are aware that a settlement was reached. 

We’ve also learned that after the Times published details of the draft report back in late 2018, yet another investigation commenced, this one to figure out how the documents had gotten loose and who was responsible, according to someone familiar with how it all went down. It is believed that an associate at Covington was behind the leak, although why an associate would have taken such a dramatic step is not clear. A spokesman for Covington went silent and didn’t respond to follow-ups after we put this reporting in front of him. A spokesman for the other firm, Debevoise, would only say, “Debevoise is not party to any agreements with any parties concerning its work for CBS.” ViacomCBS makes no mention of any settlement in its public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. A spokesman for ViacomCBS declined to comment.

The leak infuriated CBS employees and cast suspicion on the law firms handling the investigation. “The thing I hear from people that most frustrates them,” one insider told Vanity Fair back then, “is that they read about things in The New York Times before hearing any kind of communication from management. And here, once again, the one thing we were supposed to be able to control, we read about it in The New York Times.” Another had said, “Everyone thinks one of the law firms had something to do with it, but they can’t figure out why.” A spokesman who was handling communications for the probe said at the time: “No draft of the investigators’ ongoing work product has been shared with the Board or the Company. Our work is still in progress, and there are bound to be many facts and assessments that evolve and change as the work is completed. Anyone who may have disclosed draft information to The New York Times did so without authority and in violation of their obligations.”

The New York Times published two articles about the draft report on December 4. The first, written by Rachel Abrams and Edmund Lee, did not disclose how the Times got its hands on the draft. The Times explained that the lawyers had spoken to 11 of the 17 women who the lawyers knew “had accused Mr. Moonves of misconduct or harassment and found their accounts to be credible.” The first Times article mentioned three women by name whose stories were written up in the draft report.

There was Dr. Peters’s story about how, in 1999, Moonves, who has diabetes, went to see her for a consultation and “had tried to kiss her and masturbated in front of her.” (This rendition of events was consistent with Vanity Fair’s story and with an article that Dr. Peters herself had written in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, in May 2018. At the time, Moonves, through a representative, told Vanity Fair that he “tried to kiss the doctor” but “nothing more happened.”) The Times story also mentioned the actor Bobbie Phillips and her claim that, in 1995, Moonves forced her to have oral sex with him and then tried to help her get work in order to keep her quiet. (Moonves previously told the Times that he believed the encounter was consensual.) The third woman mentioned by the Times, per the draft report, was another actor, Eva LaRue, who has had a role on CSI: Miami, a CBS show.

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