Former Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow Sued for Allegedly Drugging & Raping a Woman in 2018

Former Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow has been sued by an unnamed female musician who says he drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2018. Also named as a defendant is the Recording Academy itself, which the plaintiff accuses of enabling the assault through negligence.

In the lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 8), the woman — described in the complaint as “an internationally acclaimed musician, inventor, and former member of The Recording Academy” who performed at Carnegie Hall in 2015 — claims that while meeting with Portnow in his hotel room in June 2018 to conduct an interview with him for her magazine, she “began to feel woozy” after drinking a glass of wine he offered her.


When the woman allegedly attempted to exit Portnow’s hotel room, she claims Portnow refused to help her leave “while begging her to stay” and attempting to kiss and massage her body. After allegedly losing consciousness, she says she would periodically wake to find Portnow sexually assaulting her in his hotel bed, forcing her hand to “manipulate” his penis and penetrating her vagina with both his penis and fingers.

The woman claims she awoke the next morning “woozy and confused” in the hotel bed as Portnow took a phone call. Once he finished the call, she claims Portnow “begged” her to stay in the hotel room “and under his control” but that she resisted. She says she gathered her things and made her escape after he left.

According to the complaint, the woman first met Portnow in January 2018 at the Paley Center for Media in New York, where he was speaking on a panel at an event for the 50th annual Grammy Awards. One week later, she says she received two VIP tickets to the Grammys and afterparty access from Portnow’s secretary, though she was unable to attend.

In February 2018, the woman says she emailed Portnow to thank him for the tickets, apologize for not being able to attend and tell him about her magazine. She says Portnow subsequently reached out to her in May 2018 telling her that he was traveling to New York City, at which point she told him she was interested in interviewing him for her magazine — leading to their alleged June 2018 meeting in his hotel room.

“In the immediate aftermath” of the alleged assault, the plaintiff says she tried reaching out to Portnow several times “to understand and gain clarity as to what had occurred,” but that Portnow ignored her and returned to Los Angeles around June 15, 2018.

The woman further claims that in October 2018, she emailed the Recording Academy to notify them of the assault and received an email response from the Academy’s chief people and culture officer (a position then filled by Gaetano Frizzi) “asking for a phone call to discuss the allegations.” She claims, however, that no one from the Academy ever reached out to interview her.

The following month, the woman says she received an email from Portnow’s legal representative that contained a private message from Portnow. According to a copy of the email which is included in the complaint, Portnow does not directly mention the woman’s assault allegation but instead expresses that he was “deeply saddened by your communications which unfortunately now require me to have an attorney involved.” Portnow also states that he had “always respected” the defendant and that “it is important that we hear each other with compassion and care.”

In December 2018, the woman says she filed a police report with the New York City Police Department naming Portnow as the man who sexually assaulted her.

In the aftermath of the alleged rape, the woman claims she “has suffered and will continue to suffer, great pain of mind and body, severe and permanent emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, physical, personal & psychological injuries.” She also says she has “incurred and will continue to incur expenses for psychological treatment, therapy, and counselling,” “has and/or will incur loss of income and/or loss of earning capacity in her musical career” and was “unable to maintain” her status as an Academy voting member.

The woman is suing Portnow for sexual battery; the Recording Academy for negligent hiring, supervision and retention; and both defendants for gender-motivated violence. She is demanding a trial by jury.

In a lengthy statement sent to Billboard, a spokesperson for Portnow called the woman’s allegations “completely false.”

“The claims are the product of the Plaintiff’s imagination and undoubtedly motivated by Mr. Portnow’s refusal to comply with the Plaintiff’s outrageous demands for money and assistance in obtaining a residence visa for her.

“A series of erratic, bizarre text messages and e-mails to both Mr. Portnow and the Recording Academy from the Plaintiff had already persuaded numerous previous Plaintiff’s lawyers who resigned, as well as a police agency, that her claims were baseless. The latest incarnation offers a ‘new and improved’ story, padding it with even more outrageous and untrue allegations.

“More than 5 years later, Mr. Portnow remains consistent in his refusal to assist the Plaintiff in her absurd demands that he help her in procuring a United States permanent resident visa, marry her, make children with her, support her musical career, or pay her millions of dollars so that she would not bring her frivolous lawsuit.

“When the first attempt was made to extract money and other benefits as listed above, Mr. Portnow, who was at that time President/CEO of the Recording Academy, immediately enlisted the Academy’s HR Department to review the nonsensical text messages and emails that he made immediately available.  An outside independent investigation led by top-tier lawyers, reviewed all relevant texts, emails, interviewed witnesses, and found absolutely no proof to support any of the allegations. The Academy’s Executive Committee and Board of Trustees were made aware of the results of the investigation and report; subsequently, Mr. Portnow served at the helm of the Recording Academy for the balance of the term of his contract. Throughout these processes, Mr. Portnow voluntarily and fully cooperated with and supported the investigation of these false allegations.

“Accordingly, Mr. Portnow will defend the case with vigor and will prevail.”

The Recording Academy sent the following statement to Billboard: “We continue to believe the claims to be without merit and intend to vigorously defend the Academy in this lawsuit.”

The woman’s allegations were partially aired nearly four years ago in the explosive discrimination complaint filed by Deborah Dugan, who briefly replaced Portnow as Recording Academy president/CEO after he stepped down in August 2019. The following January, Dugan was placed on administrative leave, after which she filed a discrimination complaint against the Academy with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In that complaint — details from which are outlined in the new lawsuit — Dugan claimed that during a May 2019 meeting of the board prior to assuming Academy leadership, she was informed that sexual assault allegations had been lodged against Portnow by a foreign female recording artist who was also a member of the Academy. Dugan alleged that she was placed on leave after she refused to bring Portnow back as a consultant for the Grammys.

Shortly after Dugan filed her complaint, Portnow released a statement calling the rape allegations “ludicrous, and untrue. The suggestion that there was is disseminating a lie.” He added that following “an in-depth independent investigation” of the allegations, he was “completely exonerated.”

Dugan and the Recording Academy reached a confidential settlement in June 2021.

Stories about sexual assault allegations can be traumatizing for survivors of sexual assault. If you or anyone you know needs support, you can reach out to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The organization provides free, confidential support to sexual assault victims. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the anti-sexual violence organization’s website for more information.

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