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Sexual Harassment Claims Confront Music Industry : Bias: Three record companies and a law firm have had to cope with allegations of misconduct by executives.

November 03, 1991|LAURIE BECKLUND and CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The $7-billion-a-year record industry, periodically beset by controversies ranging from payola to drugs, is quietly exerting damage control over a potential new scandal: complaints of sexual harassment by some of the top executives in the business.

During the past 18 months, The Times has learned, at least three major record companies and a prominent Los Angeles law firm have had to cope with allegations of sexual misconduct by executives. In two cases, the misconduct had purportedly gone on for years.

Spokesmen for RCA, Island, and Geffen record companies acknowledged in terse statements to The Times that allegations of sexual harassment had been lodged by employees against a major executive at each company.

Meanwhile, an attorney once lauded as the biggest deal-maker in the business settled out of court several months ago with a former law clerk who sued him for assault and battery. Once head of the music department of the prestigious Los Angeles law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, the attorney is no longer a partner there.

While sexual harassment in the music industry is described as the exception rather than the rule, dozens of industry sources said executive womanizing has been tolerated--even joked about--in certain offices for years. Women said in interviews that they had developed informal networks to warn each other of "bimbo hounds" who demand sex as the price of admission into the glamorous business.

In recent years, however, the freewheeling independent labels that helped create rock 'n' roll have been taken over by more traditional corporations fearful of costly lawsuits. Industry sources say sexual comportment has been a behind-the-scenes factor in certain recent executive shake-ups.

"The music business is basically a microcosm of society--it is controlled by white men, some of whom carry their power with dignity and honor, and others of whom use it to manipulate, exploit and repress those less powerful," said Rosemary Carroll, an attorney with the Beverly Hills law firm of Codikow, Leventhal & Carroll, which specializes in music.

"Sexual harassment may be a more serious problem in the music industry than in the overall business community because of the fact that ours is a relatively young business and that those most successful in it have grown used to writing their own rules."

The latest and most lurid of the alleged incidents involves Marko J. Babineau, former general manager of David Geffen's DGC label. Geffen Records is a hugely successful company known for nurturing quality artists such as singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and promoting blockbuster sellers by bands such as Guns N' Roses.

Babineau, 40, resigned Sept. 4 after his 28-year-old secretary, Penny Muck, complained that he had "masturbated in front of (her) in her office despite (her) protests" and ejaculated "onto a magazine she was reading," according to her attorney, Benjamin Schonbrun,and several other sources.

Babineau could not be reached for comment. The Times attempted to contact him through Geffen Records and acquaintances, and sent letters by messenger to two of his homes, but he did not respond.

Records show that the secretary signed a claim against Geffen Records with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 12, saying she had been verbally and physically harassed by the general manager on four occasions in July and August. The last incident, she reported, took place Aug. 20.

In a statement prepared for The Times, Schonbrun alleged that Geffen Records "had knowledge of the deviant behavior of one of its executives and did not take appropriate measures to ensure a safe and sexual harassment-free environment at Geffen for years."

Geffen sources told The Times that Babineau had sexually harassed other female employees as far back as 1984, when he became head of promotion at Geffen Records.

"When I went to the legal department and complained," said one woman, "the question was never what to do with the men, but what to do with these women."

She and other Geffen sources said two women had previously been transferred to other departments after complaining about Babineau. Babineau was promoted, eventually becoming general manager of Geffen's new DGC label when Geffen Records was sold to MCA Corp. for about $540 million in March, 1990.

On Sept. 4--fifteen days after the latest reported incident--Geffen Records issued a news release saying that Babineau was taking a six-month "break" after 20 years in record promotion to spend more time with his family and baby daughter.

Geffen President Ed Rosenblatt said at the time: "I speak for David Geffen and everyone at our companies when I say we're going to miss Marko. He's not only made an important contribution to our success, but is a good friend. Thus, we respect the personal choice he's made and wish him well."

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