Sexual harassment suit roils lesbian industry group

Times Staff Writer

Power Up, a network of gay women in the entertainment industry, burst upon the scene two years ago with a mission to promote the visibility of lesbians in the media and a commitment to change the "old boy's club" way of doing things in Hollywood.

But as the nonprofit group prepares for its second annual fund-raiser -- a gala in Beverly Hills on Sunday night honoring singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, Showtime Networks' Jerry Offsay and this year's "Top 10 gay women in showbiz" -- the organization finds itself embroiled in a sexual harassment dispute involving two of its co-founders.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Power Up co-founder and onetime publicist Karen Pearson Brown has accused executive director and co-founder Stacy Codikow of making unwanted sexual overtures and sexually offensive comments, e-mailing her a lewd photograph, inquiring about the sex life of Brown and her partner, and demanding Brown's resignation after learning Brown was bisexual.

"You cannot be a founder of Power Up if you are with men," Codikow told Brown, according to the suit. "This is a lesbian organization."

Brown left the organization and filed suit last year, and Codikow has since fired back in legal briefs, alleging that it was Brown who made unwanted sexual overtures and that she twice removed her clothes at Codikow's home in a failed attempt at seduction.

Brown's "tawdry allegations are completely false," Codikow said in a statement released Friday by her publicist. "It is truly regrettable that Pearson [Brown] is abusing the legal system and civil rights laws by trying to extract money from a nonprofit organization."

In August, Codikow filed a countersuit saying Brown has defamed her by spreading false claims that she had embezzled $38,000 from Power Up and used the nonprofit's money for personal purposes. Both cases are in the discovery phase, and both women have denied doing anything improper.

Each has her defenders in Hollywood's lesbian community.

Jehan Agrama, who co-chaired the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's Media Awards for 11 years and is now a member of Power Up's honorary board of directors, calls Brown's charges "laughable."

"I can't imagine [Codikow] jeopardizing [Power Up] or doing anything like that," she said. "It's just not who she is."

But Marjorie Mann, a freelance production manager for television and live events and a former Power Up member, said Codikow's countercharges are implausible.

"There is no way that Pearson [Brown] would be remotely interested [in having sex with Codikow]," she said, adding that Brown is "extremely professional."

With offices in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, Power Up -- the Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up -- has between 500 and 700 members, gay and straight, nationwide. It has bankrolled short films by its members, has held industry workshops and provides a resume bank for Hollywood filmmakers looking for talent.

Last year, Power Up received wide media coverage when it released a list ranking the Top 10 most powerful gay women in show business that included comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Etheridge, singer k.d. lang and director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry").

Its honorary board of directors includes such entertainment figures as Jan Oxenberg, producer of the TV series "Once and Again," Lee Rose, writer-director of "The Truth About Jane," Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing, Andrea Sperling, producer of "Pumpkin," and Jamie Babbit, writer-director of "But I'm a Cheerleader."

The first salvo in the legal skirmish was fired last fall, when Brown's Century City attorney, Craig T. Byrnes, filed suit against Power Up, Codikow and her production company, Codikow Films, alleging sexual harassment, defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

Among the allegations contained in Brown's suit:

* On Oct. 12, 2000, Brown attended a dinner with Codikow and others to discuss the promotion of Power Up. Codikow allegedly asked Brown, "So, are we going to have sex? What are my chances on scale of one to 10?" Brown said she replied, "I'm not going to answer that. We are business partners."

* That same month, Codikow invited Brown and her girlfriend to her house for dinner, which was also attended by Codikow's bookkeeper, Kevin Vermillion."After dinner, Codikow began asking Brown and Brown's girlfriend personal questions about their sex life," including "Do you like to watch?" the suit states.

The next day, according to the suit, Codikow e-mailed Brown a picture of a man masturbating.

* In July 2001, Codikow invited Brown and Vermillion to get ice cream during work one day. The suit states that Codikow and Vermillion then started talking about "hooker parties" they had thrown and described sexual acts they had performed on prostitutes. Brown said she told them, "This conversation is making me sick," but they continued talking about sexual acts with prostitutes.

Vermillion has filed a sworn declaration denying that he ever discussed "hooker parties" with Codikow and Brown. He also denied ever going out for ice cream with the two women.

* In July or August of 2001, Brown was having lunch in the Power Up board room with Codikow and a talent manager named Alan who had a nearby office, when Codikow allegedly said: "Hey, Pearson wants a baby. Why don't you and Alan [engage in intercourse]?" Brown said she became upset and embarrassed and replied, "That's sexual harassment, Stacy. You are creating a hostile environment."

According to Brown's suit, the situation exploded in August 2001, when Codikow asked her out but was rebuffed; Brown said she had a date with a man.

Until then, "I never discussed with her that I had been married," said Brown, 39, in an interview. "I was with the same man for about 12 years."

Two days later, Brown said she arrived at the office and found Codikow and the organization's other co-founder, Amy Shomer, waiting for her and demanding that she sign resignation papers.

"I said, 'I want to leave this office now,' " Brown recalled in the interview. "[Codikow] said, 'You're not going until you sign that.' "

In legal briefs, Codikow's attorney, Jeffrey F. Webb, branded Brown's lawsuit "utterly frivolous."

Webb also filed an appeal trying to get the suit tossed out using the novel argument that Brown's suit infringed on Codikow's right to free speech under California's anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The 2nd District Court of Appeal recently rejected the argument and trial remains months off.

A key legal question is whether Brown was an employee of Power Up. Codikow, 39, has maintained that Power Up has no employees, only volunteers, and that Brown merely worked as a volunteer during her tenure with the group.

In response, Codikow claims in a sworn declaration that she never sexually harassed Brown, never made overtures of a sexual nature to Brown and never created a sexually hostile environment.

"It was Ms. Brown who engaged in conduct of a sexual nature," Codikow said.

In fact, Codikow said, Brown once sent her a picture in which Brown was on a bed wearing a negligee. And "on two separate occasions while Ms. Brown was visiting at my house, Ms. Brown took off all her clothes and stood naked in front of me" in a failed attempt at seduction.

In a sworn declaration, Shomer said she received a call from Codikow, who "told me that Ms. Brown had just taken off all of her clothes and was running around naked in front of her. Ms. Codikow was very upset and said, 'Help me. What do I do?' I told Ms. Codikow to lock the door of her bedroom."

Shomer also states that in August 2001, after Codikow told Brown her services at Power Up were no longer needed, Brown became angry and said to her, "There will be no Power Up if I can't be part of it. I will destroy it." She then turned to Codikow and said, "I will take you down."

Brown has denied the allegations.

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