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Former AT&T executive alleges he was a scapegoat in flap over a racist meme

Former AT&T executive alleges he was a scapegoat in flap over a racist meme
An AT&T store in New York in October. (Kena Betancur / AFP /Getty Images)

A former high-ranking AT&T executive has sued the Dallas telecommunications giant, alleging he was made a scapegoat for a corporate scandal involving a racist text message because his supervisors were nervous the government might block the company's takeover of DirecTV.

Aaron Slator, who was president of content and advertising sales for AT&T's U-Verse TV service, filed the breach of contract and breach of good faith lawsuit Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court. Slator's suit alleges that his April 2015 termination came after AT&T officials repeatedly assured him that he would not be terminated because of the incident, which occurred about 18 months earlier.

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Slator also alleges defamation over AT&T's move to announce that he had been fired.

"Diversity and inclusion are important core values to us," AT&T said Tuesday in a statement. "We stand behind our decision to terminate Mr. Slator and are confident that his baseless allegations will ultimately be rejected."

Slator's high-profile dismissal came as AT&T was awaiting a decision from the Federal Communications Commission on whether it would approve AT&T's $49-billion purchase of DirecTV, based in El Segundo.

"It is clear that AT&T terminated Slator so that it could serve up a scapegoat for the claims of rampant, systemic, and far-reaching racial discrimination throughout AT&T as an organization," the lawsuit states. AT&T "panicked that these claims would further imperil its already precarious merger discussions with DirecTV and the Federal Communications Commission."

The scandal erupted in late 2013 when Slator, who was working in Los Angeles, asked his executive assistant to transfer data to a new work mobile phone. She discovered a text message that contained a meme of an African toddler dancing under a headline that contained a racial slur. Slator had sent the message to another colleague, referring to the meme as an "oldie but goodie."

The former assistant, who is African American, filed a report with the company's equal opportunity office, which prompted a review. AT&T brought in investigators to determine whether there was discrimination in the workplace, and determined there was none, according to Slator's complaint.

Slator, who first joined AT&T in 1999, contends that he was assured by AT&T officials in 2013 and 2015 that he would not be let go because of the text message. At the time, AT&T was preparing for the DirecTV deal.

His dismissal came one day after a second African American woman who worked in Slator's group, Knoyme King, filed a $100-million lawsuit against AT&T that contended the company had "a racism problem." That suit has since been settled.

Slator is represented by Patricia Glaser and Kerry Garvis Wright of the Glaser Weil law firm.

Last fall, AT&T announced its proposed acquisition of Time Warner, which owns CNN, TBS, TNT and the Warner Bros. film and TV studio in Burbank. That deal is awaiting federal review.

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