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CBS says Leslie Moonves will not receive $120 million severance

Ex-CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves was an entertainment industry titan until a magazine article detailed sexual harassment claims.
Ex-CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves was an entertainment industry titan until a magazine article detailed sexual harassment claims.(Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press/File 2013)

NEW YORK — CBS Corp., battered by scandal and facing a leadership vacuum, said its former chief executive, Leslie Moonves, misled the company about multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and tried to hide evidence as he made a frenzied attempt to save his legacy and reap a lucrative severance. The company determined he breached his employment contract and, as a result, will not receive his $120 million exit payout.

“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 board said in a statement Monday.

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The board, which met over several days last week, came to its decision after reviewing information gathered by lawyers hired by the company to investigate claims against Moonves, who was forced out in September, as well as the broader workplace culture at the network.

Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace, both before and after he came to CBS in 1995,” according to a late November draft of the investigators’ report reviewed by The New York Times.

The lawyers had gathered ample evidence showing Moonves had violated CBS policies, including lying to investigators and deleting texts that revealed his attempts to silence an accuser. Moonves has denied all the allegations and said any sexual acts he engaged in were consensual.

The investigators spoke with Moonves four times and found him to be “evasive and untruthful at times and to have deliberately lied about and minimized the extent of his sexual misconduct,” according to the draft report.

Moonves could still contest the board’s ruling and fight for his severance through arbitration. He could argue the company violated the confidentiality terms of his exit agreement when the internal investigation became public.

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Moonves, 69, was a titan in Hollywood, a swaggering executive who led largely on instinct and managed talent through a combination of charisma and manipulation. He shaped the television landscape for more than 30 years with shows across several networks. As a producer, he developed hit after hit, including “Full House” in the 1980s and “ER” and “Friends” in the 1990s. At CBS, he turned a last-place network into the most-watched channel on television with mass-market fare like police procedural “CSI” and ratings machine “Big Bang Theory.”

But by September, Moonves’s career came to a sordid end when he negotiated his exit shortly after 12 women told The New Yorker that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them. Since then, the possibility that he could still receive his lucrative exit package has infuriated many people.

CBS’s board hired two law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton and Covington & Burling, to conduct an independent investigation to determine, in part, if Moonves violated the terms of his employment agreement, which would allow the company to withhold his severance.

As part of their investigation, the lawyers interviewed at least 11 of the 17 women who they knew had accused Moonves of misconduct or harassment and found their accounts to be credible, according to the report. Most of the alleged episodes occurred many years ago.