As scope of Weinstein conduct widens, questions abound about who knew the ‘open secret’

AP

As the grim scope of the allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein continued to expand Wednesday, the organization that bestows the Academy Awards moved to distance itself from the film mogul, Ben Affleck was forced to defend his own previous actions, and scrutiny fell on who knew what about Weinstein’s behavior over the decades it allegedly took place.

A key and potentially volatile component of Tuesday’s New Yorker expose was the claim that “a culture of complicity” has existed at both The Weinstein Co. and his previous film company, the Walt Disney-owned Miramax. “Numerous people throughout the companies (were) fully aware of his behavior but either abetting it or looking the other way,” the magazine reported.

Further scrutiny has followed the contention that Weinstein’s conduct was “an open secret” in Hollywood. Focus has turned, in part, to not just the workplace environments Weinstein operated in, but the stars who may have had some knowledge of Weinstein’s alleged behavior but who failed to raise any alarms.

Ben Affleck was called out Tuesday by actress Rose McGowan. In a tweet, McGowan accused Affleck of lying after issuing a statement that he was “saddened and angry” about the Weinstein revelations. McGowan, who The New York Times reported reached a $100,000 settlement with Weinstein in 1997, suggested Affleck knew decades ago about Weinstein’s behavior.

Actress Hilarie Burton also renewed an earlier allegation that Affleck groped her during a visit to MTV’s TRL, which she was hosting in 2003. Affleck on Wednesday tweeted an apology: “I acted inappropriately toward Ms. Burton and I sincerely apologize.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also announced Wednesday that its Board of Governors will hold a special meeting Saturday to discuss the allegations “and any actions warranted by the academy.”

Weinstein has long been a major figure at the Academy Awards, where his films have regularly won Oscars, including five best picture-winners. Weinstein personally shared in the best-picture Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.” The film academy called Weinstein’s alleged conduct “repugnant” and “antithetical to the high standards of the Academy and the creative community it represents.”

The ongoing fallout poses potentially severe legal issues for the companies involved. The Weinstein Co., which fired its co-chairman on Sunday, has moved to continue forward with plans to change its name. In a statement Tuesday night, the Weinstein Co. board of directors strongly denied that it knew about Weinstein’s behavior.

“These alleged actions are antithetical to human decency. These allegations come as an utter surprise to the board. Any suggestion that the board had knowledge of this conduct is false,” the four-member board said in a statement. “We are committed to assisting with our full energies in all criminal or other investigations of these alleged acts, while pursuing justice for the victims and a full and independent investigation of our own.”

The board, however, includes Weinstein’s brother, Bob, the company’s other co-chairman. And several board members earlier resigned in the wake of the initial allegations of sexual harassment. That report, published Thursday by the New York Times, also detailed hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged settlements. It’s not known if Weinstein made the payments personally or if either The Weinstein Co. or Miramax did.

Legal experts are skeptical The Weinstein Co. could have been unaware, given the volume of the allegations.

“Given all the information that’s coming out now, I would find it highly implausible that the board was not aware,” said Angela Reddock-Wright, an attorney specializing in employment and labor law who has represented businesses in harassment suits. “There are just too many allegations here. Unless there were settlements paid out by Weinstein from his own personal money, settlements over a certain dollar value would have presumably been approved by the board of directors.”

Veteran employment attorney Ann Fromholz said that given Weinstein’s position at the company, The Weinstein Co. would be liable over sexual harassment claims even if they weren’t aware. Between the potential lawsuits and the likely loss of business, Fromholz considers it unlikely The Weinstein Co. will survive under any name.

Representatives for both companies didn’t respond to questions.

On Tuesday, Michael Eisner, who was Disney’s chief executive during Harvey Weinstein’s tenure at Miramax, said he “had no idea he was capable of these horrible actions.” Disney purchased Miramax in 1993; the Weinstein brothers departed in 2005 to create the Weinstein Co.

“Fired (the) Weinsteins because they were irresponsible, and Harvey was an incorrigible bully,” said Eisner on Twitter.

Disney’s current chief, Bob Iger, also responded in a statement: “Harvey Weinstein’s reported behavior is abhorrent and unacceptable, and it has no place in our society,” said Iger.

Three women accused Weinstein of raping them, The New Yorker reported Tuesday, including the Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento and a woman, Lucia Evans, who was an aspiring actress in college when he allegedly sexually assaulted her at Miramax’s Manhattan offices in 2004. The magazine also cited a third, unnamed accuser. A growing number of actresses, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Rosanna Arquette, have also made allegations of sexual harassment.

“Any allegations of non-consensual contact are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein,” Weinstein representative Sallie Hofmeister said Wednesday. “Mr. Weinstein is taking the time to focus on his family, on getting counseling and rebuilding his life. These are his top priorities.”

More women continue to come forward. On Wednesday, both French actress Lea Seydoux and model and actress Cara Delevingne said they had been sexually harassed by Weinstein.

“We were talking on the sofa when he suddenly jumped on me and tried to kiss me,” Seydoux wrote for the Guaridan. “I had to defend myself. He’s big and fat, so I had to be forceful to resist him. I left his room, thoroughly disgusted. I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.

“Everyone could see what he was doing,” Seydoux continued, saying she had witnessed other incidents.

“That’s the most disgusting thing,” wrote Seydoux. “Everyone knew what Harvey was up to and no one did anything. It’s unbelievable that he’s been able to act like this for decades and still keep his career. That’s only possible because he has a huge amount of power.”