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KUSC-FM Caught in Legal Wrangle : Radio: USC disputes charges in lawsuit centering on marriage of station president and on-air host.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Classical-music station KUSC-FM (91.5) is embroiled in a lawsuit that centers around the marriage of station president Wallace A. Smith and on-air morning personality Bonnie Grice.

Former KUSC programming vice president Tom Deacon charges in his suit against USC and Grice that he was fired by Smith without warning last December, a day after they argued over the quality of Grice’s on-air performance.

Deacon alleges that he was fired without “good or sufficient cause” and that Grice “interfered with the business and contractual relationship” he had with Smith.

USC, which owns the KUSC license, filed a legal response last week denying Deacon’s charges and citing “economic factors requiring a reduction in force” as the reason for his dismissal.

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Smith and Grice have refused to comment on the suit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last September, but Smith said in an interview this week that Deacon’s firing was due to university budget cuts.

“Tom was let go because we could not afford to retain him,” he said. “There have been serious budget restrictions. We had to reduce the size and scope of the organization.”

Deacon, who is currently living in Amsterdam, could not be reached for comment, but his attorney disputed USC’s economic explanation.

“We know that that’s USC’s position, but we don’t buy it,” Steven J. Kaplan said. “We don’t question that KUSC, like probably every other nonprofit radio station, is facing a difficult financial world nowadays, but we think that in constructing its budget, USC targeted Tom for termination and then used the budget as an excuse.”

The lawsuit says Deacon--a Canadian citizen who was lured to the KUSC job with promises of a housing stipend and help obtaining a work permit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service--recruited Grice for the job as morning host four months after he was hired at KUSC in July, 1989.

The suit says that within one month of her coming to work at KUSC, Grice and Smith began a relationship that led to marriage about six months later. Deacon hosted a wedding reception at his home for them, according to the suit.

Deacon contends that, contrary to USC policy that forbids an employee “to initiate or participate in decisions involving hiring, promotion, salary increase or other subjective personnel considerations concerning immediate relatives,” Smith “continuously interfered with and played an active role with respect to personnel and employment decisions relating to Grice, thereby hindering (Deacon’s) ability to effectively supervise her.”

He charges that Smith “promoted his wife’s career at the expense of other employees at USC” and that “Grice utilized her sexual and marital relationship with Smith to influence KUSC policy and to interfere with (Deacon’s) supervision of her and the execution of his responsibilities as chief of KUSC programming.”

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The suit states that Deacon began to “develop concerns regarding the quality of Grice’s job performance and the undermining of his own job responsibilities by Grice and Smith.” It says he spoke to Grice and Smith of his concerns and also to the USC vice president of budgets.

In December, 1991, Deacon’s criticisms of Grice increased, the suit says, and when he expressed those concerns to Smith, the KUSC president “responded that Grice was very upset and threatened to leave KUSC.” Deacon alleges that he was terminated the following day, but was told he could work through June, 1992, which he did.

The next step in the legal process is the discovery of evidence and the taking of depositions. Kaplan said that because of the court’s current backlog, the case would not be tried for at least three years.


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