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There’s a cliche dating to the era of Watergate, if not earlier, that’s it’s not the crime but the cover-up that ultimately ensnares wrong doers. That was certainly true of Richard Nixon, and it appears it may have been true of Les Moonves, the CBS chief who resigned under pressure Sept. 9.
Multiple women accused Moonves of sexual assault, and some of the incidents were described in detail in a pair of articles in the New Yorker. But it wasn’t Moonves’ aggressive or potentially illegal behavior that cost him his job. As the New York Times tells it, it was his lack of candor with CBS’s board of directors that sealed his fate and possibly cost him a $90 million payout upon departure.
According to reporter James Stewart, author of Den of Thieves and a master recounter of boardroom dramas, CBS’s board members were prepared to stand by Moonves and defend him against allegations that he had assured them were false. “We are going to stay in this meeting until midnight if we need to until we get an agreement that we stand 100 percent behind our CEO, and there will be no change in his status,” William Cohen, a board member and former US secretary of defense, was reported by Stewart as saying in a July meeting. (Cohen declined to comment to the Times).
Only when it became clear that Moonves wasn’t being truthful with the board about the nature of his past behavior, and the extent to which he tried to cover it up, did they turn on him, Stewart reported. Moonves didn’t tell an investigator hired by the board that a former colleague in the 1980s, Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb, had filed a police complaint against him in Los Angeles last year, nor did he tell the board that he tried to find a job at CBS for another woman, in an apparent effort to buy her silence.
“In the end, it was the evidence that Mr. Moonves had misled his board — even more than the allegations of abuse from multiple women — that doomed him,” Stewart wrote.
The CBS board, apparently, was willing to give Moonves the benefit of the doubt over the allegations detailed in The New Yorker, but his deception was a bridge too far. Other CEOs have lost jobs for similar reasons. Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard, for example, wasn’t fired in 2010 for having an affair with an HP contractor, but for misuse of company resources and lying about it to the board. (Hurd landed on his feet and is now co-CEO at Oracle.)
Even when it was becoming apparent Moonves would have to leave, in August, board members reportedly were prepared to let him have half of the $180 million severance he was owed in the even he was fired without cause. (CBS didn’t respond to a request for a comment.)
If there’s some good news in the sordid story, it’s that the CBS board came to its senses. Not only did it force Moonves resignation, but according to Stewart, in the wake of the second, even more damning New Yorker story, “it’s all but certain that the company will pay Mr. Moonves nothing.”