Doug Manchester, the billionaire nominated by President Trump to be ambassador to the Bahamas, made a fortune as a real estate developer in San Diego while also earning a reputation for his philanthropy, conservative convictions and lavish lifestyle.
In 2011, Manchester, then 69, decided to buy the struggling San Diego Union-Tribune. Over the next four years, he employed an unconventional, anachronistic management style that upended the newspaper’s culture and made many female workers uncomfortable, according to more than a dozen current and former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
During the taping of a promotional video, Manchester once pulled a reporter in for a hug so intimate that it startled onlookers in the newsroom, multiple people said. He complimented young female employees on their looks, and he and other senior managers required some of them hired for a new in-house television operation to wear short black dresses and serve as hostesses for advertisers and other guests at Union-Tribune events, current and former employees said. And he once asked an on-air program host to dye her hair platinum blond, complaining that her roots were showing, employees said.
During that time, one woman received a small settlement after complaining about unwanted hugs from Manchester as well as unwanted texts from John Lynch, then-chief executive of the newspaper, Lynch told The Washington Post, though he characterized both claims as an “effort to get some money.” In the fall, an anonymous caller complained to the newspaper’s current owners that executives knew of offensive behavior by Manchester and his team but did little about it, a company spokeswoman acknowledged. Manchester sold the newspaper in 2015.
Manchester, Lynch and the newspaper’s current publisher, Jeff Light, said that no one had accused Manchester of sexual harassment. But the current staffers and the former employees said the atmosphere was retrograde and often disrespectful toward women.
“It was like taking a step back in time, ‘Mad Men’-style,” said a former executive at the newspaper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Recalling hiring meetings from that period, the former executive said, “It was a boys club, and the boys picked which women they wanted.”
Manchester’s nomination comes amid a torrent of allegations of questionable behavior by powerful men, from unwanted kissing to groping to rape. His tenure at the newspaper raises other difficult and nuanced questions as the nation grapples with the mistreatment of women in the workplace: In this new environment of heightened awareness, what is the level of tolerance for boorish or chauvinistic behavior?
It also draws new attention to the Trump administration’s ongoing struggles to fill appointive positions. Only 267 of 636 key Senate-approved jobs have been filled through Saturday — far fewer than the previous four presidents at this point in their presidencies, according to tracking by The Post and the Partnership for Public Service. Manchester has been under consideration to serve as ambassador for more than a year.
Manchester declined requests for interviews. In a statement, he strongly denied any inappropriate behavior and said he is dedicated to supporting women’s rights and “very troubled” about the allegations. He said that when he learned about “egregious mistakes” by staff members at the Union-Tribune, he took immediate action.
“I have never been accused of or sued for any kind of sexual misconduct,” Manchester said recently in an email that he copied to White House officials and more than two dozen others. “I am terribly hurt to learn of these allegations and apologize to any employee who felt uncomfortable or demeaned while employed at the UT San Diego during my tenure.”
Cory Fish, a former human resources executive at the newspaper, said Manchester offended the newspaper staff in part because he sometimes insisted on being called “Papa Doug.” Fish said Manchester was an easy target for criticism but was a “good man.”
“He’s a different cat. He’s an older man who has a history of liking young women,” Fish told The Post. “Older men liking younger women is not a new story.”
Light, the current publisher, said the television operation Manchester pushed to create — one that featured light, sometimes racy programming — upset women and men in the newsroom.
“The implementation was an embarrassment — weak content, chauvinistic humor, big financial losses and gossip among the staff and the managers,” said Light, who worked as editor under Manchester. From January 2015 to May 2015, Light was the chief operating officer. “The news staff was . . . repulsed by the sexist vibe of the programming.”
In a note sent to his staff Feb. 12 in the wake of The Post’s questions, Light said, “I have asked our own journalists, under the leadership of managing editor Lora Cicalo, to pursue the story. My hope is that people will be able to speak openly and clearly so we can find the truth with specificity and accountability.”
In an interview, Lynch, the newspaper’s chief executive under Manchester, dismissed the women’s concerns about the workplace as “completely fallacious” and attributed some grumbling to the friction that comes with change.
“There were a lot of old-time people who misunderstood. They wanted the newspaper to be like it used to be,” Lynch said. “Everybody just wanted it to be like the good old days.”
Lynch said one woman who had been laid off from the television operation received a financial settlement amounting to two or three months’ pay after alleging through a lawyer that Lynch sent her inappropriate texts inviting her to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration and that Manchester offered unwanted hugs. He described both claims as part of an “effort to get some money and take advantage.”
He called Manchester a “bigger-than-life” character who “hugs everybody.”
Most of the nearly two dozen women and men interviewed for this story refused to be named because of Manchester’s prominence in San Diego and because they feared that they might face retaliation. Some said they are still unsettled and angry about the environment they endured during his tenure.
“ ‘Toxic’ is almost a pleasant way of thinking of those days,” said one woman, a former editor.
One woman who was asked to wear a short dress and serve as host at newspaper events said she felt uncomfortable but that she went along with the requests because she was young and naive.
“I thought, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ ” said the woman, who was 22 at the time. “I remember thinking I didn’t have any options.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Manchester is well known in San Diego as founder of the Manchester Financial Group and as the tough and sometimes caustic real estate developer behind some of the city’s most prominent building projects, including the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Manchester Financial Building and the luxury Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort and spa.
He has a hand in dozens of other businesses, including biotechnology, mortgage receivables, and television and movie productions, according to financial disclosure statements he filed as part of his nomination. In those reports, Manchester listed his assets as being worth at least $227 million and potentially more than $630 million. In July, Bloomberg calculated his net worth at more than $1 billion.
He and his wife gave about $1 million to groups that supported Trump’s presidential campaign, and he served as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention.
Manchester is an outspoken conservative willing to back up his beliefs with donations. In 2008, he gave $125,000 to promote Proposition 8, a California initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage, a donation he later said was a mistake.
He has lived a lavish lifestyle and has at times surrounded himself with attractive young women, according to interviews and photographs of parties. For his 65th birthday, he celebrated by spending more than $500,000 on parties and other activities, divorce records show.
He was married to his first wife, Betsy Manchester, for four decades. They lived an opulent lifestyle that included multiple homes, one an $18 million mansion on the Pacific coast, as well as regular use of private jets and extensive travel, court records show.
The couple separated in 2009 and began negotiating over their finances, which included about $50 million in liquid assets, documents show. Manchester’s wife estimated that she needed $100,000 a month to maintain her lifestyle, including an $8,000 monthly clothing allowance, documents show.
Manchester came to the media business in 2011 almost as an afterthought. Like newspapers across the country, the Union-Tribune was struggling. The owners, who had bought the newspaper just two years earlier, were ready to sell in a deal that would include valuable real estate in the city. In November 2011, Manchester paid a reported $110 million for the paper and renamed it UT San Diego.
Manchester, Lynch and other new managers launched the television operation, called U-T TV, to attract subscribers and expand the newspaper’s reach. They spoke coarsely about the young women they were considering hiring for the new operation, according to a former executive who sat in on closed-door meetings. Before discussing candidates’ professional qualifications, Manchester and other senior leaders sometimes discussed which ones were “hot,” “beautiful” and “just gorgeous,” the executive said.
One manager in the television operation said he told young female staffers to avoid going to the executive floors on their own after they complained about remarks and leering.
Uncertainty about Manchester among some women in the newsroom rose as word spread that he had installed a private bedroom suite on the building’s secure fifth floor.
It was clear from the start that the newspaper would be run in a new way.
In his statement, Manchester said that since the 1980s he has had executive suites in all of his properties. “These suites are used to accommodate out of town business associates and family guests,” he wrote.
The newspaper made no secret about the light, sexy aims of the television operation. One segment, called Massage Envy, showed hosts partly undressed under sheets.
In 2012, the paper published a provocative full-page color advertisement for a morning program. It showed the program’s female host on a beach wearing a clingy dress as two male hosts openly ogled her bottom. “It’s a Heat Wave! Add some sizzle to your morning,” the ad said.
The tenor of the programming drew derision from other local media.
“Ultimately, if U-T TV wants to make a naked (sometimes literally) play for lowest-common-denominator programming, that’s U-T TV’s prerogative,” reporter Sara Libby wrote in the Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news organization. “But let’s call it what it is.”
In the office, Manchester sometimes stared at and complimented the women he encountered, according to multiple women. One said the experience left her with “just an icky feeling.”
“It was just, like, you don’t want to get caught alone in the elevator with him,” she told The Post, a remark that was echoed by other women who were there at the time.
Some men said they were also uneasy about the atmosphere. One male journalist was present on the day when Manchester pulled in a female reporter for an intimate hug.
“In a way, that freaked me out,” the man said.
The woman who was hugged declined to comment.
In 2015, Manchester sold the Union-Tribune to Tribune Publishing, now known as Tronc, the publisher that also owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and other publications.The $85 million deal left the newspaper’s real estate in Manchester’s hands.
But hard feelings lingered.
In the fall, an anonymous caller left a message on a Tronc employee hotline for ethical complaints, alleging that Light and Fish, the human resources executive, knew about offensive behavior by Manchester and his team but did nothing to address it, documents and interviews with Tronc employees show.
The claims triggered an in-house review at the Union-
A Tronc spokeswoman said the men were not found to be culpable of wrongdoing. Light said he responded quickly to all allegations of workplace harassment.
Tronc expressed confidence in Light and said in a statement: “As per our policy, we interviewed current and former employees with direct knowledge of the facts alleged and have concluded that there was no case of misconduct by the current leadership of the Union-Tribune.”
Manchester expressed bewilderment over the criticism.
“As a father of eight children and 13 grandchildren, six of whom are daughters and 11 are granddaughters, I have always fought hard for women’s equal rights and opportunities,” he wrote in his statement, adding: “I assure you that as you have learned from former HR director Cory Fish, none of these allegations were against me personally, and I took immediate action as appropriate.”
Researcher Alice Crites and database reporter Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.