CBS has interviewed more than 150 people in its sexual harassment probe of top talent and executives, and it’s imploring any additional people with such allegations to come forward and alert the company, according to a memo obtained by FOX Business.
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The Oct. 2 memo, which was first reported by FOX Business on "Countdown to the Closing Bell" with Liz Claman, is an indication that the investigation into sexual harassment allegations made against senior executives such as former chief executive Les Moonves, while continuing, may be entering its final stages, say people with knowledge of the matter.
Moonves was ousted from CBS in early September, but he isn’t the only top executive felled amid the heightened scrutiny into sexual misconduct. Others include former anchor Charlie Rose, who left the company in November 2017, and former "60 Minutes" chief Jeff Fager, ousted a few days after Moonves.
Rose has apologized for “inappropriate behavior” but said specific allegations of misconduct aren’t accurate. Fager denied allegations of sexual misconduct, and said he was fired for a “harsh” email to a colleague who was covering those allegations. Neither could be reached for comment.
Moonves has also denied the accusations, chronicled in two lengthy articles in The New Yorker magazine, and is waiting on the findings of the internal CBS investigation that will determine whether he will receive $120 million in severance that he is owed under the terms of his contract.
Depending on the outcome of the probe, the CBS board could determine that Moonves was fired for cause, and withhold much or all of his compensation, setting the stage for a lengthy arbitration battle between the company and its fallen CEO, people with knowledge of the matter tell FOX Business.
A spokesman for CBS had no comment. A representative for Moonves couldn’t be reached for comment.
The memo didn’t say specifically when the internal probe would end. In fact, it said the investigation “is actively continuing on all fronts,” though some people close to CBS suggested that by imploring others to come forward, the company is looking to wrap up the inquiry.
For example, the memo pointed out that the inquiry, being conducted by two top law firms, will report its “findings directly to the Board, not to management,” adding: “The Board takes these matters extremely seriously and wants a full picture of any issues at the Company so it can address them,” the memo said.
“The Board also wants to understand the workplace culture at CBS – both its strengths and its weaknesses,” it said, and told employees “if you would like to come forward anonymously, we can and will take steps to protect your identity.”
The memo was issued by a pair of former federal prosecutors who are leading the probe for CBS: Nancy Kestenbaum of Covington & Burling, a veteran lawyer who specializes in sexual misconduct probes, and Mary Jo White, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission who is currently at Debevoise & Plimpton.
The memo comes as CBS is facing an uncertain future. CBS insiders say after the sexual misconduct investigation concludes, the board will look at a possible sale of the network, currently considered the crown jewel of the Redstone family’s media empire, which includes Viacom.
Shari Redstone, who now runs the family business for her ailing father, Sumner, fought a bitter battle with Moonves and his team as she tried to merge CBS with Viacom, while Moonves looked for another suitor. As part of a settlement of their legal wrangling, CBS and Redstone reached a two-year stand-still agreement, which will allow CBS to seek partners other than Viacom.
In terms of a possible sale of CBS, people with direct knowledge of the matter say new board members and current management are still assessing the company’s assets and positioning in the market. In the last two months alone, the CBS board has replaced six of 11 board members.
Rich Greenfield, an analyst for BTIG, believes CBS will eventually have to merge with Viacom because there is a lack of appetite among possible buyers. Tech outfits, like Netflix and Amazon, are creating their own content. Meanwhile, big media conglomerates like Comcast and AT&T are being put on notice by the Justice Department’s antitrust division that they shouldn’t consider purchasing major content providers like CBS without intense government scrutiny.
Company insiders also say CBS will soon begin a search for a permanent CEO. CBS’s longtime chief operating officer Joe Ianniello has filled the CEO spot pending the search, and company insiders say he is a leading candidate for the spot.
But Ianniello is also a longtime confident of Moonves, which could hurt his chances, according to Greenfield. “The only person who thinks Ianniello will be CEO is Ianniello,” Greenfield told FOX Business.