Former Grammys CEO Neil Portnow Accused of Drugging and Raping Artist in New Lawsuit

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neil-portnow.jpg Pre-Grammy Gala - Arrivals - Credit: Mark Von Holden/Variety/Getty Images
neil-portnow.jpg Pre-Grammy Gala - Arrivals - Credit: Mark Von Holden/Variety/Getty Images

Over three years after an allegation first surfaced accusing former Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow of rape, the woman who accused him has now sued the music industry exec over the allegation.

According to the suit, filed in New York on Wednesday and obtained by Rolling Stone, a recording artist listed as a Jane Doe alleged that Portnow drugged and sexually assaulted her in his hotel room in New York in June 2018, and that the Recording Academy “aided and abetted Portnow’s conduct to protect their reputations and silence Plaintiff’s and other women in the music industry who have stood up and spoken up.”

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Portnow served as Grammys CEO for 17 years, from 2002 until 2019. He received significant backlash after the 2018 Grammy Awards, when he told reporters that women needed to “step up” for better representation in the business after minimal representation at that year’s awards. (Portnow later said the comment was “taken out of context” and “do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make.”) In May 2018, he announced he was stepping down at the end of his contract in the summer of 2019.

The rape allegation against Portnow first surfaced in January 2020 as part of his successor Deborah Dugan’s discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after she was ousted just over a week before the 62nd Grammy Awards.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, a rep for Portnow denied the allegations, calling them “completely false.”

“The claims are the product of the Plaintiff’s imagination and undoubtedly motivated by Mr. Portnow’s refusal to comply with the Plaintiff’s outrageous demands for money and assistance in obtaining a residence visa for her,” the rep said.

The rep also said that “a series of erratic, bizarre text messages and e-mails to both Mr. Portnow and the Recording Academy from the Plaintiff had already persuaded numerous previous Plaintiff’s lawyers who resigned, as well as a police agency, that her claims were baseless. The latest incarnation offers a “new and improved” story, padding it with even more outrageous and untrue allegations.”

However, the plaintiff alleged in her suit on Wednesday that no one from the Recording Academy had ever interviewed her regarding the allegation. (A rep for the Recording Academy tells Rolling Stone, “We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend the Academy in this lawsuit.”)

The allegations come just two days before the Academy is slated to announce the nominations for this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony.

“What she is doing is standing up for herself and calling out Portnow, the Academy and the entire industry,” the plaintiff’s Attorney Jeff Anderson said in a statement.

The plaintiff, a former Academy member who lives in New York and was 37 years old at the time of the allegation, according to the suit, alleged that she met Portnow in January 2018 at a Grammy event. By June, after Portnow had allegedly reached out and said he’d be in New York again, she met him at the Kitano Hotel to conduct an interview for her magazine.

After she came to his hotel room, Portnow allegedly gave her some Grammy memorabilia then offered her a glass of wine, which she alleged was spiked with drugs that disoriented her. “After consuming some of the wine, Plaintiff began to feel woozy and had trouble focusing her eye. She had never reacted to wine like this before,” the suit said, adding that she “attempted to stand up to walk to the bathroom, but her legs were shaking, and she was unable to control her body.”

Doe tried to leave the hotel, the lawsuit claims, but Portnow allegedly told her it was too late and there weren’t taxis available. “While Plaintiff was disoriented and incapacitated, Portnow attempted to kiss and massage Plaintiff’s body,” the suit alleged. “Portnow spoke to Plaintiff in a comforting voice. Plaintiff pushed Portnow away. Portnow told Plaintiff to ‘relax’ and hushed her.”

Doe alleges she repeatedly lost and regained consciousness while Portnow sexually assaulted her.

“One time when Plaintiff regained consciousness, she awoke to Portnow forcing Plaintiff’s hand to manipulate his penis, telling her that it was ‘okay.’ Portnow then forcibly penetrated Plaintiff’s vagina with his penis,” she alleged in the suit. “Another time when Plaintiff regained consciousness, Portnow was forcibly digitally penetrating Plaintiff’s vagina. Throughout Portnow’s sexual assault of Plaintiff, Portnow gave assurances to Plaintiff, telling her it was okay and saying, ‘you are the boss.'”

The accuser alleged that she woke up in the hotel room the next morning “woozy and confused,” eventually leaving the hotel room after Portnow left for a meeting. The plaintiff claimed that she attempted to contact Portnow multiple times after the alleged assault “to understand and gain clarity as to what had occurred,” and that by October, she reached out to the Recording Academy regarding the allegation.

As screenshots of emails supplied in the suit show, by November 1st, an Academy representative — whose name was redacted in the suit — responded and asked to schedule a phone call with her. Three weeks later, according to the suit, the plaintiff got an email from who she said was Portnow’s legal representative, containing a personal message from Portnow to her that didn’t address the allegations directly.

“I am deeply saddened by your communications, which unfortunately now require me to have an attorney involved to send what is a completely personal message to you and copy to nobody else,” the email said. “Please know that I have always respected you in every way at all times, both professionally and personally. As we are both musicians, we understand the beauty that comes from harmony in music, which includes being kind and supportive of our fellow industry members and each other.”

By December 2018, the plaintiff filed a police report with the NYPD, according to the suit. Rolling Stone has reached out to the police department regarding the report.

By August 2019, Portnow officially stepped down. In January 2020, Dugan came forward with the EEOC complaint, referencing the rape allegation as well as a separate claim that a music attorney had sexually harassed her, and that the Grammys’ voting process was corrupted.

Dugan said in her complaint that she was first told of the claim during an Academy Board Meeting in 2019, before her official start as CEO, when the Recording Academy Board was mulling giving Portnow a bonus for his past work with the Academy. She also claimed that before anyone from the Academy told her about the allegation, former Academy chairman John Poppo asked her to hire Portnow as a consultant for $750,000. She settled over her complaint in 2021.

The plaintiff filed her suit citing the Adult Survivors’ Act, a legislation passed last year in New York that enabled a one-year lookback window for survivors of sexual assault to bring forward their allegations in civil court and waive the statute of limitations.

The causes of action list Portnow as the lone defendant on a count of sexual battery, while the Academy was listed on a count of negligent hiring, supervision and retention. Both defendants were listed as defendants on counts of gender-motivated violence. The plaintiff is seeking unspecified damages to be determined by the court.  “As a result of Portnow’s sexual assault, enabled by Defendant The Recording Academy, Plaintiff has suffered severe emotional, physical and psychological distress, including shame, guilt, economic loss of earning capacity, and emotional loss,” the lawsuit said.

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