The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former CBS chairman Les Moonves fired for cause, will not receive severance in wake of sexual misconduct allegations

CBS said Dec. 17 that it had found cause to fire former CEO Les Moonves without severance as he heads out the door in disgrace. (Video: Reuters)

Les Moonves, the once-powerful head of CBS, will not receive any severance payment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, CBS’s board of directors announced Monday.

The network made the announcement after the completion of a company investigation that found Moonves guilty of “willful and material malfeasance” and a failure to comply with the investigation. He was set to receive as much as $120 million as part of his severance package, depending on the results of the inquiry.

Moonves resigned in September after several women accused him of sexual misconduct in a pair of scathing exposes in the New Yorker.

A lawyer for Moonves called the CBS board’s conclusions “without merit.”

“The press was informed of these baseless conclusions before Mr. Moonves, further damaging his name, reputation, career and legacy,” Moonves attorney Andrew J. Levander said in a statement. “Mr. Moonves vehemently denies any nonconsensual sexual relations and cooperated extensively and fully with investigators.”

Severance packages, which often result from the terms of an employee’s contract, have become flash points in high-profile workplace harassment and assault cases. Fox News terminated Bill O’Reilly’s contract in 2017 after he was accused of harassing female employees, and the former host walked away with $25 million. Roger Ailes received a $40 million severance package after he stepped down as head of Fox News in 2016 after his own sexual harassment scandal. And critics closely watched whether Matt Lauer’s departure from NBC News would include a hefty payout as well; several outlets reported that he would not receive money, though the network has not publicly confirmed.

CBS faced scrutiny last year after eight women accused longtime television host Charlie Rose of sexual harassment. Both CBS and PBS terminated Rose shortly thereafter. And “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager left CBS in September amid accusations of harassment and threatening texts.

The independent investigation into Moonves “also concluded that harassment and retaliation are not pervasive at CBS,” the board of directors said in a Monday statement.

Before the allegations against Moonves were made public, he had earned the status of one of the industry’s top executives. He joined CBS from Warner Brothers Television in 1995, after helping establish cultural touchstones such as “Friends” and “E.R.”

Soon after his arrival, he transformed CBS into a ratings powerhouse. It has been the top network in total viewers for the past decade, with the New York Times going so far as to say that Moonves “engineered one of the most spectacular turnarounds in television history.”

Throughout this time, he was often portrayed favorably. When the #MeToo movement gained steam, Moonves was heralded as a supportive male voice. In December 2017, he helped found the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, chaired by Anita Hill.

“It’s a watershed moment,” Moonves said at the time. “I think it’s important that a company’s culture will not allow for this.”

But in August, Ronan Farrow published a detailed profile in the New Yorker in which six women accused Moonves of sexual harassment over a 30-year period, from the late 1980s to the late 2000s. These included allegations of unwanted touching and kissing accompanied by physical or professional threats.

Moonves denied any wrongdoing in a statement: “I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances. But I always understood and respected — and abided by the principle — that ‘no’ means ‘no.’ "

A month later, Farrow published another story in which six additional women accused Moonves of sexual misconduct during the same time period. One woman, a veteran television executive named Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, said that Moonves physically restrained her and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Many of these women also said that the executive retaliated and damaged their careers after they rebuffed his sexual advances.

Moonves stepped down from his position at CBS hours after the New Yorker published its second story containing allegations against him.

Watch more:

This is the story of how Hollywood's unique power structure enabled sexual harassment to remain the entertainment industry's open secret. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)