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Sexual harassment suit roils lesbian industry group

November 02, 2002|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Power Up, a network of gay women in the entertainment industry, burst upon the scene two years ago with a mission to promote the visibility of lesbians in the media and a commitment to change the "old boy's club" way of doing things in Hollywood.

But as the nonprofit group prepares for its second annual fund-raiser -- a gala in Beverly Hills on Sunday night honoring singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, Showtime Networks' Jerry Offsay and this year's "Top 10 gay women in showbiz" -- the organization finds itself embroiled in a sexual harassment dispute involving two of its co-founders.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Power Up co-founder and onetime publicist Karen Pearson Brown has accused executive director and co-founder Stacy Codikow of making unwanted sexual overtures and sexually offensive comments, e-mailing her a lewd photograph, inquiring about the sex life of Brown and her partner, and demanding Brown's resignation after learning Brown was bisexual.

"You cannot be a founder of Power Up if you are with men," Codikow told Brown, according to the suit. "This is a lesbian organization."

Brown left the organization and filed suit last year, and Codikow has since fired back in legal briefs, alleging that it was Brown who made unwanted sexual overtures and that she twice removed her clothes at Codikow's home in a failed attempt at seduction.

Brown's "tawdry allegations are completely false," Codikow said in a statement released Friday by her publicist. "It is truly regrettable that Pearson [Brown] is abusing the legal system and civil rights laws by trying to extract money from a nonprofit organization."

In August, Codikow filed a countersuit saying Brown has defamed her by spreading false claims that she had embezzled $38,000 from Power Up and used the nonprofit's money for personal purposes. Both cases are in the discovery phase, and both women have denied doing anything improper.

Each has her defenders in Hollywood's lesbian community.

Jehan Agrama, who co-chaired the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's Media Awards for 11 years and is now a member of Power Up's honorary board of directors, calls Brown's charges "laughable."

"I can't imagine [Codikow] jeopardizing [Power Up] or doing anything like that," she said. "It's just not who she is."

But Marjorie Mann, a freelance production manager for television and live events and a former Power Up member, said Codikow's countercharges are implausible.

"There is no way that Pearson [Brown] would be remotely interested [in having sex with Codikow]," she said, adding that Brown is "extremely professional."

With offices in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, Power Up -- the Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up -- has between 500 and 700 members, gay and straight, nationwide. It has bankrolled short films by its members, has held industry workshops and provides a resume bank for Hollywood filmmakers looking for talent.

Last year, Power Up received wide media coverage when it released a list ranking the Top 10 most powerful gay women in show business that included comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Etheridge, singer k.d. lang and director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry").

Its honorary board of directors includes such entertainment figures as Jan Oxenberg, producer of the TV series "Once and Again," Lee Rose, writer-director of "The Truth About Jane," Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing, Andrea Sperling, producer of "Pumpkin," and Jamie Babbit, writer-director of "But I'm a Cheerleader."

The first salvo in the legal skirmish was fired last fall, when Brown's Century City attorney, Craig T. Byrnes, filed suit against Power Up, Codikow and her production company, Codikow Films, alleging sexual harassment, defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

Among the allegations contained in Brown's suit:

* On Oct. 12, 2000, Brown attended a dinner with Codikow and others to discuss the promotion of Power Up. Codikow allegedly asked Brown, "So, are we going to have sex? What are my chances on scale of one to 10?" Brown said she replied, "I'm not going to answer that. We are business partners."

* That same month, Codikow invited Brown and her girlfriend to her house for dinner, which was also attended by Codikow's bookkeeper, Kevin Vermillion."After dinner, Codikow began asking Brown and Brown's girlfriend personal questions about their sex life," including "Do you like to watch?" the suit states.

The next day, according to the suit, Codikow e-mailed Brown a picture of a man masturbating.

* In July 2001, Codikow invited Brown and Vermillion to get ice cream during work one day. The suit states that Codikow and Vermillion then started talking about "hooker parties" they had thrown and described sexual acts they had performed on prostitutes. Brown said she told them, "This conversation is making me sick," but they continued talking about sexual acts with prostitutes.

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