Former PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley has been ordered by a judge to pay the network more than $2.6 million in a contract dispute that stemmed from his 2017 ouster over allegations of sexual misconduct.
The case dates back to 2018 when Smiley sued the network over the cancellation of his late-night talk show after accusations emerged from six female employees.
Smiley, 55, a popular draw for the network for 14 years, claimed PBS breached its contract and in the process damaged the reputation of his own production company — TS Media. PBS filed a countersuit against Smiley, asking for the return of at least $1.7 million in production expenses.
Ironically, the allegations against Smiley were revealed only as a result of his filing the lawsuit, reports said.
A D.C. Superior Court ruling on March 4 found Smiley violated his PBS contract, allowing the case to proceed.
The latest action comes after a three-week trial in Washington, D.C., in which Smiley took the stand twice and admitted to two workplace affairs, according to The Washington Post. His contract with PBS, however, spelled out that romantic relationships were not allowed in the workplace.
On August 5, Judge Yvonne Williams ordered Smiley to pay $1 million more than PBS originally sought from him.
The amount includes $1.9 million in damages related to Smiley’s final two seasons at the network. He must also repay $703,000 to the network’s underwriters — money that had been spent to keep paying Smiley’s lucrative contract as the legal matter played out in court.
In her 10-page ruling, Williams wrote: “The court determines that the amount sought by PBS in liquidated damages is reasonable because it is the amount it paid to produce Season 13 and 14 of ‘The Tavis Smiley Show.’ "
The network said it was forced to cancel Smiley’s contract in 2017 after six female employees, all of whom testified during the trial, accused the host of sexual harassment dating back more than a decade.
2018 report details case
A detailed report by an independent investigator hired by the network to look into the allegations was unveiled earlier this year.
The findings accused the well-known political commentator of using his position to seek sexual relationships with guests of the show and those who worked under him.
The nearly 500-page report was filed by Smiley’s own attorneys in the ongoing legal battle between the host and PBS, which canceled the “Tavis Smiley” show in December 2017 amid the allegations and an internal investigation.
In the report from March 2018, Smiley denied all the allegations, as he did again during the trial, testifying under oath that he never used his position to pressure or threaten anyone.
He also has never been charged with any crimes related to the allegations.
Smiley still maintains that his conduct never ran afoul of his production company’s policies.
In the 2018 report, however, his accusers — one after another — say Smiley made inappropriate advances which, if they refused, would end in retaliation, termination or their dismissal from the show.
A series of allegations
In 2000, the report said, a woman accused Smiley of grabbing her buttocks during a photo shoot and said he later brushed up against her from behind and called it an accident.
The same accuser said she visited Smiley’s home in 2016, when he opened the door wearing no pants, the report said. He then invited her to bed with him and another woman, also an employee who was inside at the time, the report said.
Another woman who worked with Smiley between 2002 and 2003 alleged in the report that Smiley made her so uncomfortable during a dinner in Atlanta that she had to go to the bathroom and call her sister for consolation.
‘Keep it a secret’
One woman, a show producer, told investigators that she began a sexual relationship with Smiley on a work trip in the late 2000s after Smiley allegedly called her to his hotel room, saying “we just need to keep it a secret since I am your boss,” according to the investigator’s report.
That employee was eventually fired for work performance issues, the report said.
Another accuser said in the report that she was kicked off the show after she said Smiley found out she was not divorced.
One of Smiley’s former employees said in the report that the host urged her out to lunch soon after she started working for the network. At the restaurant, Smiley asked if she was in a relationship, the report said. Next, he allegedly asked about her bra size and even made an offer to buy her Victoria’s Secret lingerie, the report said.
The employee said she dismissed Smiley’s suggestions, and he threatened to make her walk back to the office alone, the report alleges. She was eventually laid off, according to the report.
Several other women in the report admitted they had consensual relationships with Smiley but acknowledged they were “put in a bad position when their boss hits on them,” the report said.
The report said the accusers were afraid to call out Smiley’s behavior because of his executive status over the show.
Tavis Smiley claims innocence
Smiley also talked to the independent investigator and is quoted in the report saying he never disciplined or fired an employee due to sexual relationships with him. He said he ended all consensual relationships with employees about 10 years ago.
Earlier this year, Smiley referenced the case in a post on Facebook.
“A weak case you play in the press, a strong case you play out in a court of law,” he wrote. “I look forward to my day in court February 10, which I have finally seen granted, after 2 years of fighting.”
Despite recently losing a bid to have the PBS lawsuit thrown out, Smiley continues to maintain his innocence.
“Let me also assure you that I have never groped, inappropriately exposed myself or coerced any colleague in the workplace ever in my 30-year career,” he said in 2017. “If having a consensual relationship with a colleague years ago is the stuff that leads to this kind of public humiliation and personal destruction, heaven help us,” he said later on Facebook.
Smiley has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
He was once host of the “BET Tonight” show before the network abruptly announced in 2001 that his contract would not be renewed.
His PBS show regularly featured politicians, actors, singers and authors who sought more appeal and exposure with Black audiences.
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