Sumner Redstone: CBS Staffer Alleges Harassment
Sumner Redstone’s longtime deputy, Karen Zatorski, has told CBS that the billionaire verbally abused her and displayed a violent temper, sources tell Peter Lauria. Is an embarrassing lawsuit next?
A threat to sue media billionaire Sumner Redstone for harassment— reported by the New York Post yesterday, without naming the possible plaintiff—is about to get more interesting. Two sources with knowledge of the situation, including one CBS insider, tell The Daily Beast that the woman in question is Karen O'Rourke Zatorski, a vice president of corporate relations at CBS—and someone who has worked intimately with the mercurial mogul for more than 15 years.
According to these sources, Zatorski was a high-level adviser on corporate strategy and communications to Redstone at Viacom from 1994 until its split in 2006, at which point she went over to the CBS side of the business. Redstone owns both Viacom—which counts the Paramount Pictures movie studio and cable networks MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon among its stable of assets—and CBS, which controls the eponymous television network, CBS Radio, Showtime, and book publisher Simon & Schuster.
Zatorski's complaint deals more with verbal abuse and violent outburts, such as throwing dishes, rather than sexual harassment.
The harassment allegations, these sources say, are not sexual in nature, but instead deal with issues of temper and violent outbursts. In her current position, Zatorski is one of the main conduits between CBS and Redstone and in that capacity would have frequent one-on-one contact with the billionaire octogenarian.
"She would travel with Sumner a lot," says a former insider who knew Zatorski prior to Viacom's split with CBS. "There were definitely situations where she spent time with him alone."
The New York Post's Page Six reported yesterday that a "prominent former employee" was threatening to sue Redstone for harassment and had retained Anne Vladeck, the lawyer who netted Anucha Browne Sanders $11.6 million in her sexual-harassment lawsuit against former New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden in 2007.
A representative for Redstone declined comment. Multiple calls to Vladeck's office were not returned. A message left on Zatorski's Facebook page went unanswered.
Redstone, 87 years old, has come under fire in recent weeks for forcing Viacom's MTV to develop a reality show about a raunchy all-girl band dubbed the Electric Barbarellas over the objections of network executives including CEO Judy McGrath, and instructing Showtime, the pay-TV division of CBS, to hire a young, club girl named Rohini Singh as a publicity representative. In addition to the reality show and publicity gig, Redstone also gifted Heather Naylor, the frontwoman for the Electric Barbarellas, and Singh with stock valued at between $77,000 and $100,000.
Though Zatorski has retained a lawyer, she has not yet filed a lawsuit. She has lodged a complaint with CBS, which is investigating the matter and handling negotiations, The Daily Beast's sources confirm. While the crux of the Page Six story was correct, it misidentified Zatorski as a former employee and focused on her role at Viacom. Zatorski is, in fact, still an employee of CBS and the basis of her allegations focus on her role there, not at Viacom, these sources say.
But since Redstone is more closely associated with the Viacom side of the operation—Paramount ranks as his most beloved asset—and CBS is viewed as something akin to a bastard child, CBS executives are keen to stoke the idea of the latest scandal as a problem for Redstone's favored sibling instead of their own, according to the CBS insider.
While the timing of Zatorski's complaint appears opportunistic, and an anonymous source in the Page Six item used language—"the real threat is that papers will be filed with the court if a settlement is not reached, which could be hugely embarrassing for Redstone"—that seems a heavy-handed pressure tactic, the sources familiar with the players say Zatorski is not the kind of woman who would portray herself as a victim just to capitalize on a situation.
"She's a very nice woman, a hard worker, very well-liked," says the CBS insider. "She wouldn't do something like this just to cash in."
While Redstone's recent issues revolve around caddish behavior, the CBS insider says Zatorski's complaint deals more with verbal abuse and violent outburts, such as throwing dishes, rather than sexual harassment. Redstone, whose net worth is estimated at roughly $9 billion, is prone to expletive-filled tirades that frequently involve the smashing of anything within reach, say his current and former associates. Indeed, sources said that during his 2007 flareup with daughter Shari over succession at both Viacom and CBS, it was not uncommon for Redstone to refer to her using the c-word at board meetings.
Zatorski is the first woman to come forward with accusations against Redstone, but the fear among those who know the billionaire is that he's created a situation where she won't be the last.
According to another source who previously worked for Redstone, the potential now exists for harassment complaints, real or imagined, to be lodged by, "any [woman] who has been alone with him, from flight attendants on the [corporate jets] to someone at the studio sent to his house to meet with him." And however frivolous and baseless the charges, they still have to be defended against, which could cost Viacom and CBS—and their respective shareholders—potentially tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine.