After eight years in the record business, Penny Muck thought she’d seen it all, again and again and again: drugged-out rock stars, sex-crazed groupies and all sorts of other bizarre behavior.
During her tenure as a secretary at powerhouse Geffen Records, she helped coordinate promotion for some of rock’s richest and raunchiest bad boys, notably Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith.
She had also heard the record industry criticized continually in recent years for exploiting sex and degrading women in videos and album covers.
But nothing prepared Muck for the day last July when she says her boss leaned over her desk, unzipped his pants and masturbated in front of her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Muck, in her first extended interview since the incident was reported in a Nov. 3 article in The Times about sexual harassment. (She will also be interviewed tonight on ABC-TV’s “PrimeTime Live” at 10 p.m.) Muck, who initially resisted talking to the press, said that the importance of the issue has compelled her to discuss in more detail the events that led to her filing a lawsuit and its effect on her life.
“All of sudden, he just starts doing it,” Muck remembered. “He’s got this crazy look in his eyes . . . and he’s saying ‘Watch me! Watch me!’ . . . Immediately, this big fear shoots through my whole body and I’m saying, ‘No! No!’ but I don’t know what to do.
“After he ejaculated, it was so weird. Like something out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He just walks back into his office and it’s like business as usual. As if nothing ever happened. I thought to myself, ‘Right, like who’s going to believe this?”’
Muck’s initial allegations and subsequent lawsuit against Geffen Records sent a shock wave through the entertainment industry, prompting boardroom discussions about sexual harassment in executive offices on both coasts and several follow-up pieces in other publications.
Sitting late last week in the living room of her attorney’s West Los Angeles home, Muck said she still believes she did the right thing in filing her lawsuit, but she acknowledged that her public ordeal has not been easy. Feelings of humiliation, anger and isolation brought on by months of alleged sexual harassment, she said, forced her to seek and continue weekly counseling.
“After I filed the suit the atmosphere at the company was poisoned,” Muck said. “Geffen was a company I would have stayed at, a place that I felt was my home. But I just couldn’t stand it any more.
“The guy I blew the whistle on was well loved by many powerful people at Geffen and throughout the industry. When you tell something like this, it’s so shocking. It’s horrible. I felt totally isolated. I didn’t do this to become a crusader. That was never my intention. But I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. This stuff has to stop.”
Because she was initially reluctant to talk to the press, her allegations were conveyed through her lawyer Benjamin Schonbrun in an article in The Times Nov. 3 Times disclosing that charges of sexual harassment had been lodged against several top recording executives.
She filed a multimillion-dollar sexual harassment suit Nov. 14 in Los Angeles Superior Court against Geffen Records and its parent corporations. (No court date has been set).
Geffen officials--who issued a statement last fall that Marko Babineau, the former general manager of Geffen’s DGC label, had resigned to spend more time with his family--now say that Babineau was terminated as a result of an investigation into Muck’s allegations. Geffen attorney Bertram Fields denied that the company had any prior knowledge of the kind of alleged abuse attributed to Babineau in Muck’s suit.
“Neither I nor my clients are defending Mr. Babineau or his conduct,” Fields said. “We don’t know yet what really happened between him and Ms. Muck. He says one thing and she says another. We do know that no matter what Mr. Babineau may have done, if fundamental principles of law and equity have anything to do with it, my client should not be held liable for Mr. Babineau’s conduct.”
In a written answer to Muck’s complaint filed Jan. 30 in Superior Court, Babineau either denied the allegations or exercised “his privilege under the U.S. Constitution to refuse to disclose any matter which may tend to incriminate him.” Babineau was unavailable for comment, and his attorney failed to return numerous calls from The Times.
The reverberations of Muck’s actions were felt throughout the industry. Within weeks, an official in the royalty department at Capitol Records was fired following an in-house sexual-harassment investigation. There were also rumblings in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office about launching a review of sexual harassment in the music industry.
“Penny Muck may well be the Anita Hill of the music industry,” said attorney Dan Stormer, of the Los Angeles law firm Hadsell & Stormer whose clients recently won the two largest multimillion-dollar sex-harassment and sex-discrimination ($20.3 million) judgments in the nation. The harassment verdict for $3.1 million was levied against the Long Beach Police Department and the sex-discrimination award for $20.3 million was against Texaco.
“I mean that in the most positive sense,” Stormer said. “Her display of courage, her commitment to fight back and her willingness to put her career on the line may prevent this from happening to other people. Victims can win substantial damages in these cases and I think that the guys who run the entertainment industry ought to wake up to that fact.”
While feminist groups have publicly applauded her efforts and she claims to have received thousands of calls of support from sex-harassment victims inside and outside the business, the feisty 28-year-old former secretary said she harbors no illusions about the outcome of her case.
“I’m not expecting to bring down the boys club or anything,” Muck said. “I can’t do anything about the bimbos in our business or the good-old-boy network they appeal to. What I hope is that my case may lead the way for other women to stand up and say, ‘Hey, guess what, guys? Professional women don’t care if there are bimbos out there who will do anything to get backstage. Those of us who aren’t bimbos are taking a position on this issue and we refuse to be sexually harassed any more.’ ”
In her suit, Muck alleged that Babineau repeatedly masturbated in front of her over a two-month period, fondled her breasts and buttocks, forced her to touch his penis and on one occasion jammed her face into his crotch.
She also claims that Geffen executives ignored a lengthy history of complaints against Babineau filed by other female employees years before her alleged harassment began--a charge vehemently denied by Geffen attorneys.
“I found out later that this same thing happened to other women before me who complained,” Muck said. “I thought, what about if it happens to the woman after me? I thought like, who’s next? If I would have left there and not said anything, I couldn’t live with myself. I couldn’t have that on my conscience.”
Still, the question raised most in industry circles is why Muck--a competent secretary who had worked for a variety of established ticket agencies, concert promoters and artist management teams during her eight-year tenure in the business--didn’t just quit.
Why did she endure months of allegedly increasing sexual harassment?
“I’ve asked myself that same question a hundred times,” said Muck, “It’s not as if I didn’t make attempts to find another job. I asked around. There just weren’t any jobs available and I had bills to pay.
“But there’s more to it than that. You stay because it’s your job, your career and you’re afraid to lose it. Because you love music and you take great pride in what you do. Marko ran the office, but it was like my little baby. I was very loyal and I never slacked off. You see, I had nurtured this office for for two years and we had just arrived at the point where things were really blossoming.
“If you were into rock ‘n’ roll, Geffen was the dream company to work for. With all my friends, in fact with everyone in the industry, when you said you worked for Geffen, you got an immediate response. Geffen was like prestige. I knew if I blew the whistle on Marko that things would get hairy. And I was right.”
After Muck filed her suit and quit her $32,000-a-year post at Geffen, many insiders predicted she would never work in the industry again. But she recently landed a similar-paying job as the West Coast director of a small artist management firm in Los Angeles.
“I think women need to wake up,” Muck said. “We’re humans. This isn’t about sex. This isn’t just about dirty jokes or obscene behavior. It’s about power. There are a lot of jerk men in this business, a lot of weirdos who have gone unchecked for years. I’ve talked to lots of women who have been harassed. They’ve called me to quietly express their support. But we have to be bolder about it. Because if women don’t stand up and demand to be treated like humans, nothing is ever going to change. Believe me, there are men out there who are concerned about this issue. They do exist. I was afraid if I came forward, I’d never work again. But I got a job.”
Muck’s former boss is back in business too.
Four months after his termination at DGC, Babineau opened his own promotion company, MJB & Associates in Bel-Air, and has reportedly been hired independently by artist management teams to obtain radio airplay for records released on Radio Active and Geffen labels. Both labels are distributed by MCA, one of the parent corporations named in her lawsuit.
Muck wasn’t surprised about her former boss’s quick re-emergence in the industry. She said it indicates that the executives who run the business do not take the sexual-harassment issue seriously.
“These guys don’t care one bit about women,” Muck said. “They are concerned with one thing and one thing only: the money, the bottom line, that’s it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive about what I’m up against here. Fighting the boy’s club is a real uphill battle. But hey, somebody’s got to do it.”