Neil Portnow, the former chairman and president of the Recording Academy, was sued on Wednesday by a woman who claimed he drugged and raped her in a New York hotel room in 2018, according to the New York Times.
The allegation had previously surfaced in 2020 as part of a blockbuster legal claim filed by Portnow’s successor, Deborah Dugan, after she was abruptly placed on leave and ultimately terminated after just eight months on the job; at the time Portnow called the allegations “ludicrous, and untrue.”
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The new suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, accuses Portnow, who stepped down in 2019, of sexual battery, and accuses the academy — the nonprofit group behind the Grammys — of negligence. Dugan’s claim also said the Recording Academy’s board was aware of the allegations.
The suit does not name the woman, but it describes her as an instrumentalist from outside the United States who once performed at Carnegie Hall. The court papers include redacted related correspondence the woman, who has not spoken of the incident publicly until now, exchanged with the academy in 2018.
“Neil Portnow gives lip service to women as standing up,” said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer for the plaintiff, according to the Times. “But he does a disservice to every woman and every musician who is being oppressed by him and others. This is not just about Neil Portnow and not just about the Recording Academy, but about the culture in the music and entertainment industry and its doublespeak about rape and abuse.”
Anderson’s comment makes reference to Portnow’s controversial statement at that year’s Grammys, in which he responded to a question from a Variety reporter by saying that female artists and executives needed to “step up” in order to advance in the music industry.
In a statement, a representative for Portnow called the allegations false, and said they were “the product of the plaintiff’s imagination and undoubtedly motivated by Mr. Portnow’s refusal to comply with the plaintiff’s outrageous demands for money and assistance in obtaining a residence visa for her.”
“The latest incarnation” of her accusations, he said, “offers a ‘new and improved’ story, padding it with even more outrageous and untrue allegations.”
The Recording Academy said in a statement to Variety: “We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend the Academy in this lawsuit.”
In the suit, the plaintiff claims she met Portnow at a Recording Academy event in January 2018, when the most recent year that Grammys were held in New York. She says invited her to the ceremony, and later told her he would return to New York in the spring. The two met at his hotel that June.
Portnow greeted her in the lobby and brought her to his room, the suit continues, where he gave her Grammy memorabilia and offered her a glass of wine. She drank but he did not, she says in the suit, and she “began to feel woozy.” She told him she wanted to leave but he said no taxis were available, it continues.
The suit says that Portnow then told the woman, “I have been thinking about you for a very long time,” before she passed out. She claims she awoke several times throughout the night while Portnow was sexually assaulting her. The suit claims that Portnow is ignored several later attempts by the woman to contact him. However, it includes and image of a November 2018 email from a lawyer for Portnow to the woman in which he wrote, “Please know that I have always respected you in every way at all times, both professionally and personally. I remember your indicating your interest and belief in the teachings of Buddha and I found this saying which resonates with you now: ‘Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.’”
The suit states that the woman later filed a police report naming Portnow, according to the suit, although the district attorney’s office had declined to prosecute.
On Wednesday, a rep for Portnow said that after the woman’s initial accusation, he “immediately enlisted the Academy’s HR Department to review the nonsensical text messages and emails that he made immediately available. An outside independent investigation, led by top-tier lawyers, reviewed all relevant texts, emails, interviewed witnesses and found absolutely no proof to support any of the allegations.” However, the woman’s complaint states that she was never interviewed as part of any academy investigation.
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