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PBS investigation details Tavis Smiley sexual misconduct allegations

According to the PBS report, multiple women were concerned about retaliation by Smiley, and believed that reporting Smiley’s behavior would be “futile,” since he oversaw both the organization and its human resources department.
Image: Tavis Smiley
Tavis Smiley officiates Courting Justice: Little Rock, Arkansas at Central Arkansas Library Ron Robinson Theatre on Sept. 23, 2016 in Little Rock, ArkansasEarl Gibson III / Getty Images file

According to a newly unsealed report from a PBS-hired external investigator, former talk-show host Tavis Smiley’s alleged misconduct dates back decades and spans inappropriate sexual comments and touching, verbal abuse, as well as sexual relationships with subordinates and guests on his show.

The findings from March 2018 were filed by Smiley’s legal team as part of the ongoing legal dispute between the host and PBS, which canceled “Tavis Smiley” in December amid misconduct allegations and an internal investigation. Smiley then sued PBS, alleging breach of contract. PBS in early 2018 filed a countersuit against Smiley, asking for the return of $1.9 million in production expenses.

Allegations from numerous women are detailed in the report. One former employee alleges that a few days after she started working for Smiley, he asked her to lunch; he called her on her cell phone instead of her office line and told her where to meet him to drive there, even though they were both in the office at the time. Smiley allegedly asked her at that lunch if she had a boyfriend, and then on the drive back to the office asked about her bra size, offering to take her to the Victoria’s Secret at The Grove and “buy you some stuff, some panties.”

She told the investigator that she laughed off the comments, but Smiley persisted and said something along the lines of “If you don’t tell me what bra size you wear, I will make you walk back to the office.” He also left a voicemail on her cell phone, telling her she looked “so good” in the pink dress she was wearing. The woman, who was eventually laid off, said others told her that she was let go because she “knew too much,” referring to her knowledge about Smiley’s behavior, according to the report.

Several of the women interviewed by the investigator say they had consensual relationships with Smiley, but noted the impact of the professional power dynamics on their decisions. One woman, who had been a guest on Smiley’s show in 2008 or 2009 and had a sexual relationship with Smiley, noted that she “uncomfortably went with [sexual contact]” at Smiley’s house and added that “women are put in a bad position when their boss hits on them,” according to the report’s summary of interviews. She said she was not invited back to the show.

A former traveling producer for Smiley told investigators that she had a sexual relationship with him in the late aughts. It began on a work trip, when the hotel’s front desk informed her that Smiley had requested her to his room for business purposes. When she arrived, he made sexual advances toward her. She allegedly told him something along the lines of, “Look, I worked really hard for this job, and I am not trying to lose it because of a relationship with you,” upon which Smiley told her that it wouldn’t happen and that she was “smart,” but that “we just need to keep it a secret since I am your boss.”

The producer was terminated after others found out about the relationship; she was told work performance issues were the cause, but believes that Smiley had her fired because of simultaneous relationships he was carrying on with other women in the office, said the report.

A separate woman says Smiley was unhappy after discovering that she was not divorced and, on a separate occasion, felt that he telegraphed that he didn’t find her attractive while pregnant. She said she was not asked back to the show.

Some of the allegations date back decades. One woman told PBS’ investigators that around 2000, Smiley grabbed her buttocks while a photo of them was being taken, and that on a separate occasion he had brushed by her, purposely making contact between his penis and her buttocks, pretending that it had been an accident. Among the other recounted experiences in the report, she said that upon visiting Smiley’s house once in 2016, he opened the door not wearing pants, and asked her to have a threesome with him and a female employee who was naked in Smiley’s bed, looking scared.

Another accuser, who worked with Smiley between 2002 and 2003, alleged that during a dinner on a work trip in Atlanta, Smiley asked her why was “playing so hard to get” and said “Come to my room,” putting his hand on her back. She was so uncomfortable that she left to go to the bathroom and call her sister.

According to the report, multiple interviewees were concerned about retaliation by Smiley, and believed that reporting Smiley’s behavior would be “futile,” since he oversaw both the organization and its human resources department.

Smiley denied the misconduct allegations, telling the investigator that he has never engaged in suggestive banter, and also denied having said “anything generally misogynistic about women,” according to the report. He additionally told the outside investigator that he has never disciplined or terminated an employee for knowing too much about his sexual relationships or for having sex with him. He said he has also never told his staff to terminate an employee for having a relationship with him. Smiley also told PBS’ investigator that he had stopped all consensual relationships with employees around 10 years ago, though the report’s findings indicate that he has likely had “several” relationships with employees within the past decade.

Smiley has previously denied the allegations and accused PBS of racial bias and unnecessary audits of his books. He has previously acknowledged consensual relationships with employees and said that such relationships were not prohibited by his production company’s policies.

Smiley posted to Facebook on Friday, alluding to the report’s findings.

“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 [two] years of fighting.”

His own attorneys were the ones who filed the report from PBS’ outside investigator, which was then removed from the court docket on Friday.