A former morning host of JAZZ.FM91 is suing the troubled not-for-profit Toronto radio station, alleging she was bullied for years by its former president and CEO, Ross Porter, and then constructively dismissed last spring after joining others in complaining about his alleged misconduct.
The move comes days before the station’s annual general meeting on Friday morning, when disenchanted member-supporters are expected to challenge the charity’s board about the turmoil that erupted on its watch earlier this year.
In a statement of claim filed Tuesday afternoon with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Garvia Bailey, who hosted JAZZ.FM91’s marquee show Good Morning Toronto from September, 2014, until April, 2018, is seeking $420,000, including one year’s salary of $90,000 for wrongful dismissal, $100,000 in moral damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. She also seeks $50,000 for “loss of publicity,” $50,000 for “breach of the duty of honesty” and $30,000 in damages for reprisal under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The station, which relies on gifts and donations from listeners and supporters for more than half of its revenue, had a budget of $4.6-million in 2017, according to filings with the Canada Revenue Agency.
In her statement of claim, Ms. Bailey says that she and other then-current and former JAZZ.FM91 employees began meeting in or around January of this year to discuss their experiences “being bullied, harassed and sexually harassed by Ross Porter.”
Calling themselves the Jazz Collective (or the JAZZ.FM Collective), Ms. Bailey says the group sent a letter on March 16, 2018, to the board of directors alleging “the station had become a toxic work environment.” The letter named Mr. Porter, as well as the station’s vice-president of finance and operations, Sharda Prashad; then-chair of the board Bernard Webber; and then-vice-chair Renah Persofsky. Ms. Bailey’s name was on the letter, along with those of 12 others.
The station called in a third-party workplace investigator who interviewed more than two dozen individuals, including Ms. Bailey. The investigation concluded at the end of April. In a statement to The Globe and Mail at the time, a board member wrote that “many of the complaints were unsubstantiated… Where the findings substantiated aspects of the complaint, the board has taken corrective action.”
Mr. Porter stepped down at the end of May and was granted the title of president emeritus. In a statement to The Globe and Mail at the time, Mr. Porter said “I consider many of these accusations to be isolated, distorted and manipulated out of context.” He added that his change in duties was not connected to the investigation, and that he had stepped down to spend more time with his family.
Ms. Bailey says in her statement that, in late April, she was called into a meeting with Ms. Persofsky, who told her the ratings for her show were “in the dumps.” She was offered a new contract as the host of “an unspecified, unplanned and unbranded overnight pre-recorded radio show,” a move which Ms. Bailey alleges was “reprisal for being part of the Jazz Collective and making the complaint.”
After Ms. Bailey argued that the change amounted to constructive dismissal, the station backtracked and offered to reinstate her in the morning position, “subject to a performance management plan.” She would still be reporting to Ms. Persofsky, about whom she had made a formal complaint.
“Given the years of bullying and harassment from Ross Porter directed at Ms. Bailey, the environment created by the bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment of staff at JAZZ.FM91 by Ross Porter, Sharda Prashad, Renah Persofsky and others, and the callous, high-handed and egregious nature of the attempt to demote and/or subject Ms. Bailey to arbitrary performance management without any legitimate rationale, Ms. Bailey determined she could not return to an unsafe and toxic work environment,” the statement says.
The statement further claims that, contrary to the station’s stated rationale for Ms. Bailey’s demotion, the ratings for her show were on “an upward ratings trend.”
The statement of claim outlines a workplace in which staff felt they had no safe channels through which to report behaviour they believed to be inappropriate. In the spring of 2016, Ms. Bailey says responsibility for human resources was handed to Ms. Prashad, whom many staff regarded as Mr. Porter’s “closest confidante” and therefore someone to whom they did not feel comfortable reporting alleged misconduct.
Ms. Bailey says Mr. Porter warned staff that taking concerns directly to the board of directors “would be grounds for discipline or termination.”
She also alleges that, in the spring of 2015, she was sexually harassed by an unnamed “major donor to the station” to whom Mr. Porter “had instructed female staff to be ‘extra nice.’” In 2016, she says, a male listener sent her photos of his genitalia. Though one manager at the station did contact police about the latter incident, “JAZZ.FM91 did not implement or discuss any sexual harassment, harassment, or bullying policy or procedures with Ms. Bailey.”
The statement adds that a staff meeting in early 2018 “was the first time Ms. Bailey received information on how to report sexual harassment, harassment and bullying at JAZZ.FM91.”
Ms. Bailey’s statement also sheds light on the departure of Dani Elwell, another well-liked host whose show was cancelled in September 2017 without any explanation to listeners. It claims that Ms. Elwell, who also served as the station’s vice-president of creative and the program director of Good Morning Toronto, was told she had been deemed “toxic” after questioning some decisions made by Ms. Prashad.
Ms. Elwell left the station last fall.
None of the allegations in Ms. Bailey’s statement has been proved in court.
On Wednesday afternoon, Charles Cutts, the station’s interim CEO, e-mailed the following statement to The Globe: “JAZZ.FM91 has received Ms. Bailey’s Statement of Claim and denies the allegations. We continue to be committed to a collegial and harassment-free workplace. A neutral third party investigation was previously conducted into Ms. Bailey’s allegations and JAZZ.FM91 will vigorously defend itself in the appropriate legal forum now that the matter is before the courts.”
The chair of the board, David McGown, said he had not seen the statement and declined to comment.
Ms. Bailey’s suit comes as some deep-pocketed donors intensify pressure on the board to publicly address concerns about their handling of the Porter allegations and other issues, ahead of the charity’s annual general meeting.
Two weeks ago, Marie Slaight, a producer and philanthropist who last year made a sizable donation to the station in honour of her father, broadcast legend Allan Slaight, sent a letter to the board criticizing its handling of the workplace allegations and calling for its dissolution. She warned that she and other concerned individuals were considering running for the board.
Last week, the board began to push back, making its own allegations about those challenging its authority.
In a letter sent to donors last Friday, Mr. McGown, charged that “a small but vocal faction appears intent on overthrowing the board,” and suggested they might be “looking for an opportunity to disrupt a relatively small charitable institution and grab what is an extremely valuable asset, the licence and broadcast reach of JAZZ.FM91.” He warned that the station might be taken over and turned “into just another commercial broadcasting station.”
That seems unlikely, as regulators would be inclined to shoot down any such effort if it were launched: The station holds a special licence from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission noting its not-for-profit status and requiring it to provide programming that is “clearly complementary to, rather than imitative of, that provided by commercial broadcasters.”
Originally posted on theglobeandmail.com by Simon Houpt on August 29, 2018