Harvey Weinstein sued by New York state over sexual harassment

Harvey Weinstein (EPA/Paul Buck)
Harvey Weinstein (EPA/Paul Buck)

Wilmington - Harvey Weinstein was sued by New York state, adding to the embattled movie producer’s legal troubles and dealing a major setback in efforts to find a buyer for the film studio he founded.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in the lawsuit that the executive created a hostile work environment at Weinstein Company where some employees were subject to “pervasive sexual harassment”, intimidation and discrimination.

It comes as the 65-year-old mogul seeks to sell the studio to Maria Contreras-Sweet, a former Obama administration official, in a $500m bid backed by billionaire Ron Burkle. The New York Post reported that Contreras-Sweet, who was expected to sign a deal as soon as Sunday, instead pulled her offer.

Schneiderman said in a statement that the company’s sale might leave victims “without adequate redress, including a lack of a sufficient victims compensation fund”. While the suit isn’t aimed at blocking the sale to Contreras-Sweet’s group, the attorney general said he wants to make certain that victims aren’t harmed by the transaction.

“Any sale of the Weinstein Co must ensure that victims will be compensated, employees will be protected going forward, and that neither perpetrators nor enablers will be unjustly enriched,” Schneiderman said.

Weinstein, who faces a wave of sexual-assault claims stretching back to the 1970s, was ousted from his studio in October 2017 after the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine published accounts in which women accused him of sexual harassment and rape. He has denied any non-consensual sexual activity.

Harassment claims

A string of actresses have come forward to accuse the producer of sexually harassing or raping them in exchange for career help. Actress Dominique Huett claimed Weinstein masturbated in front of her and performed oral sex on her in 2010. She sued his studio for $5m. Actress Uma Thurman, who starred in some of Weinstein’s hit movies, such as “Pulp Fiction” and the “Kill Bill” trilogy, also has accused the producer of attempting to sexually assault her in London in 1994.

“We believe that a fair investigation by Mr Schneiderman will demonstrate that many of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are without merit,” his lawyer, Ben Brafman, said in a statement. “While Mr Weinstein’s behaviour was not without fault, there certainly was no criminality, and at the end of the inquiry it will be clear that Harvey Weinstein promoted more women to key executive positions than any other industry leader.”

Weinstein will “vigorously defend himself” if Schneiderman seeks to “scapegoat” him, Brafman added.

The studio said in a statement that its board is disappointed with the lawsuit as many of the allegations were inaccurate. There is no truth to any suggestion that the studio impeded its suitor’s access to the state’s attorney general and the company looks forward to bring the situation to an appropriate resolution, according to the statement.

In the suit filed on Sunday, Schneiderman seeks steep financial penalties from Weinstein, his brother and company co-founder Robert Weinstein, and the New York-based firm itself; victim restitution; and a court order that would invalidate non-disclosure agreements signed by women who had contact with the producer. 

The attorney general is also demanding “judicial or other supervision” that will ensure the studio complies with terms of a settlement, and he wants to block any transaction that would strip his office from having legal authority over the company, according to the complaint filed in New York Supreme Court.

Contreras-Sweet, the former head of the Small Business Administration under Obama, offered to buy Weinstein’s studio and replace current directors with a majority of women. Contreras-Sweet’s investment group, which includes Burkle, would assume most of the liabilities of Weinstein Co and create a fund to compensate victims of sexual harassment.

Representatives for Contreras-Sweet and Burkle didn’t immediately return calls and emails for comment.

Blind eye

The attorney general said the Weinstein Co has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the producer’s sexual misconduct.

Instead of moving to sanction Weinstein, directors failed to investigate a series of sexual-harassment claims levied against him, and instead used strict non-disclosure agreements to gag victims, according to court filings. The lawsuit says that each brother has about 21% of the voting shares and that Robert remains on the board.

The suit details numerous instances where Harvey Weinstein, identified in the complaint by his initials, allegedly assaulted, harassed or intimidated female employees. It claims that groups of women at the firm were compelled to “facilitate HW’s sexual conquests”.

“HW’s assistants were exposed to and required to facilitate HW’s sex life as a condition of employment,” Schneiderman said. None of the many complaints filed with the company’s human resources department “resulted in meaningful investigation or relief for victims, or consequences for HW”.

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