Static on the Dial

A little less than four months after getting fired by Clear Channel Broadcasting, June Garcia Sherman, formerly the director of nontraditional revenue at five local Clear Channel stations, decided she wasn't going to take her dismissal lying down. On May 5, she filed suit against Clear Channel Worldwide, Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays and Rick Martiny, her boss in Houston, and her litigation has Houston's radio industry in a tizzy.

As first reported in the Virginia-based trade mag Radio Business Report, Sherman is claiming that she was fired because she questioned the ethics of a Halloween haunted house deal put together by Steve Kopelman, the brother of Clear Channel Houston's regional vice president/market manager Mark Kopelman. The suit also alleges that the Galleria-area offices of Clear Channel Houston were a discriminatory environment for women and minorities, and indeed, the 137-point suit reads like some kind of R-rated, politically incorrect series of Dilbert cartoons.

A Clear Channel spokeswoman declined comment, citing a company policy that disallows discussion of pending litigation. The company has issued a general denial in the suit and is seeking to have it thrown out of court and into arbitration, based on guidelines in its employee handbook.

The arbitration clause in that handbook is broad, to say the least. Basically, if you're an employee and you have any beef with Clear Channel -- be it one about discrimination, sexual harassment or even whether your case is covered by the company arbitration agreement -- an arbiter gets to hear the case, not the courts. If you signed for your employee handbook and continued to work at Clear Channel, that means you agreed to the arbitration, Clear Channel's lawyers claim.

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A written record of Sherman signing for the handbook is on file, but her lawyers are seeking to nullify the arbitration agreement because the handbook was for a company called Clear Channel Worldwide, which they claim is not a legal entity. Clear Channel says it's not a company per se but a recognized service mark, and therefore Sherman is subject to the agreement.

In Racket's opinion, it would indeed be a pity if this suit got thrown out of court -- if for no other reason than a jury would get cheated out of hearing a corker of a tale. Read on.

The suit states that in April of last year, Martiny told Sherman that she would be handling a haunted house deal in October. She was told that Steve Kopelman, who is not employed by Clear Channel, would be getting half the proceeds from the gate, and that Clear Channel Broadcasting would be paying all hard costs (budgeted at more than $300,000) and would also provide free advertising on its radio stations, she says in the suit.

With the fall of Enron still fresh on everybody's mind, Sherman says, she was concerned by what she saw as a shady project. The suit states that she expressed her concerns to Martiny, who then told her not to make "a stink" about the deal, before acknowledging that there might be something not aboveboard about it. According to the suit, Martiny said "there was probably some kind of deal going on but we have to do it because Kopelman is the market manager." Sherman responded that she thought that using company money for personal profit "didn't smell right." Martiny repeated his warning to her, the suit says.

From that day forward, the suit claims, Sherman's days on the job were numbered.

In June of last year, Sherman was told that her department wouldn't be getting the raises they had thought were forthcoming. The next month, Sherman and Steve Kopelman settled on the closed-down Old Navy store at Northwest Mall as the haunted house's home. Clear Channel swung the deal by giving Northwest Mall $30,000 in free advertising, the suit says.

Sherman expressed more concerns to Martiny, the suit says. Martiny told her to comply. Sherman agreed, but said that it "didn't look good that the company wouldn't pay the salary increases which it had promised to [her] department staff, and that it was footing the bill for Steve," the suit says.

Papa John's pizza was brought aboard as the title sponsor for the event. It paid Clear Channel $54,000 for a series of spots on the Mix. According to the suit, the pizza chain wanted more than the typical name mention and four-word tag such as "Papa John's -- the best pizza in town" or something like that. Sherman claims that she wouldn't budge -- Papa John's would have to be content with the same deal all the other nontraditional sponsors got.

Eventually, Sherman stepped aside and Cindy Abreu, an account executive at Clear Channel's classic rock station the Arrow and a member of that station's board of directors, took over negotiations with Papa John's. According to the suit, Papa John's fretted that some of the spots it had bought might not run, so Abreu forced all local station managers to give the chain ad time, and allowed Papa John's to add ten- to 15-second commercials to the haunted house promos. According to the suit, this shift renders the commercials salable inventory, and therefore shareholders' money.  

Sherman states that relations with her superiors became noticeably more strained after she stood up to Papa John's. Sherman's husband, Marc -- the program director at Clear Channel station Sunny 99 -- got a phone call from Martiny in which the latter joked that he had just fired Sherman's wife, the suit says. Apparently he wasn't exactly joking. On September 3, Marc Sherman called June over to his office and showed her an Internet posting for her job, one that said it needed filling. June Sherman confronted Martiny about the help-wanted ad. Martiny denied knowing about the matter and summoned Abreu to his office. Abreu also professed ignorance. The next day, Drew Hilles, another Clear Channel employee, called her and told her the posting was a terrible mistake, that she shouldn't worry, that her job was safe, according to the suit.

Apparently this wasn't so. The ad didn't come down, and applicants were practically lining up at her door. A former client sent her an ad and asked Sherman for advice -- did Sherman think the friend was up to the job? Sherman recognized the job description as her own, and a close friend of Hilles's was also said to be in contention for her job. She approached Martiny about it, who told her not to worry, that he had "no clue" why the posting was still up, the suit says.

As Halloween approached, Sherman started worrying about the haunted house again. She approached Martiny and Abreu with her misgivings. They told her to zip it, the suit says. She decided to go over their heads. She called Mark Kopelman, ostensibly to talk about the press releases for opening night, but then she went on to talk about the event. The suit says that Kopelman cut her short and referred questions about the press releases to his brother, who told her that the releases would have to be written by her. Sherman complied.

According to the suit, the "haunted house was very profitable for Steve and/or Mark." Apparently, however, they weren't in the mood to share the wealth, because on December 4, haunted house director Phillip Rose called Clear Channel Broadcasting and told them he had several Papa John's banners that he would not surrender until Steve Kopelman paid him the wages he was due, the suit says. More than a month later, Rose still hadn't been paid and he still held the banners hostage, the suit says. Sherman says she forwarded the message to Mark Kopelman, who ignored the matter.

On January 13, Sherman again approached Abreu about the haunted house, with fateful results. Abreu emerges from the suit as something of a wild child. According to the suit, at an Enrique Iglesias concert, she was very drunk and very paranoid. In the presence of Sherman, she fretted that none of her underlings liked her, called one of the associates "a fat bitch" and forced Sherman to say, "I am not afraid of you and I love you," the suit says. When Sherman balked, Abreu became abusive and berated her until she complied, Sherman alleges.

One week previous to this meeting, the suit says, Abreu announced that she couldn't conduct the proceedings because she had gotten drunk at a raucous lunch with Kopelman, Martiny and Hilles, at which Kopelman handed out Rolexes to Abreu, Hilles and Martiny. Four days later, she left work early complaining about a hangover, the suit says.

And Sherman's suit says she could tell that Abreu had her third hangover of the last seven days on the 13th -- Abreu's office was dark save for a lamp, and she was wearing sunglasses. According to the suit, Abreu received her rudely -- she set up an egg timer in the shape of a pig and told Sherman to be quick. Sherman reiterated the hostage banner mess. She told Abreu that Papa John's wanted its banners back, that a Clear Channel client was being harmed financially because Steve Kopelman wouldn't pay Rose, and that in addition to all the money Clear Channel had spent on the project, they were now in danger of losing a solid client.

In her suit, Sherman says she handed Abreu printouts of all the e-mails regarding the banners. "I sent this to Mark Kopelman last week and he hasn't responded," she said. "I'm very concerned about this -- and I am concerned that my character may be on the line. It's a very sticky situation since it involves Steve -- and Steve won't pay the Director of the Haunted House yet, and the Director is holding Papa John's banners hostage -- and the company is holding the bag for Mark and Steve."  

According to the suit, Abreu burned, yelling, "Shut up! I'm trying to read this!"

Moments later the volatile Abreu apologized. Her eyes still lowered as she read the e-mails, Abreu said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I got fucked up last night and am hurting because of it. Just let me read this in silence," the suit says.

Once done, Abreu demanded to know what Sherman was implying, the suit says. Sherman again stated her case in great detail. "Are you finished?" Abreu demanded. Sherman said she wasn't and expressed concern that the haunted house money wasn't even on the books. "Who has it, and when can I report it on my revenue?" she demanded. Abreu again asked her if she was done. Sherman said no and plowed on. The haunted house had been a big money-loser for Clear Channel, if not for one or both of the Kopelmans, she said. Only half of the 40,000 people they had expected had bought tickets. There had been a lot of complaints -- many said the only thing scary about the thing was its ticket price.

"We're going to be in the hole for another $360,000 in addition to the $2.6 million in donated advertising from Mark Kopelman," she said. "I don't want any part of this."

"Are you through?" Abreu asked for the third time, before adding ominously that "all your bitching doesn't make you look like a team player," the suit says.

Three days later Sherman was summoned to Martiny's office, where Martiny, Abreu and a woman from human resources awaited her. Seeing the HR staffer there, Sherman knew her time was up. She asked Abreu why she was being fired. "It is not going in the direction we want it to," Abreu said. Martiny said he was sorry as Sherman headed out the door. "Oh! And you have made mistakes which cost this company a lot of money!"

According to the suit, June Sherman is depressed, ill and virtually a recluse now in the home she shares with Marc, who is still the program director at Sunny 99. She can't discuss her case with him because she's afraid Clear Channel will fire him in vengeance. A hearing on the suit was scheduled for July 3.

Bigots "R" Us

According to the suit, minorities were treated very badly at Clear Channel Broadcasting's Houston offices. In January of last year at a general sales meeting, Martiny slammed his fist on the table, and indicating that he was referring to associate Angie Gonzales, said, "Would somebody please find this stupid fucking Mexican tickets to Luis Miguel so she can take a car full of Mexicans to the show and get off my back!" Later that year, Abreu referred to a former employee as "a typical black -- lazy."

The suit also alleges that at another general sales meeting, Martiny introduced new black associates Steve McNair and Pam McKay to the existing sales team. McNair got up and thanked his new co-workers for their support. "All right boy you can sit down now," Martiny said. "Yeah," chimed in Abreu, "you can shut your black face up now." Abreu was still chuckling long after the meeting. "Wasn't that funny with Steve?" she asked Sherman. Sherman said she didn't find it funny at all. "Well, what do you know -- you're Mexican," Abreu said.

The suit claims that there was also a little sexual harassment and Christian-bashing going on, too, as the following remarkable conversation reveals. Martiny livened up one meeting by commenting on Abreu's and Sherman's "big boobs." Abreu responded that she couldn't stop staring at Martiny's "dick." "Jesus Christ!" a no-doubt flattered Martiny responded. "Jesus? Jesus? There's no such thing as Jesus!" Abreu stated.

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