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Spotted Pig owner will pay $240K to settle harassment case

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Outside the Spotted Pig, in the West Village of Manhattan, in 2016.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Outside the Spotted Pig, in the West Village of Manhattan, in 2016.

NEW YORK >> Ken Friedman, the principal owner of the Spotted Pig restaurant in Manhattan, has agreed to pay $240,000 and a share of his profits to 11 former employees who have accused him of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination, as part of a settlement brokered by the New York state attorney general’s office.

The office investigated the allegations, which were first reported two years ago by the New York Times, and determined that since at least 2005, the restaurant had violated state and city human-rights laws by maintaining a hostile and highly sexualized workplace where female employees were subjected to severe and pervasive incidents of unwanted touching and sexual advances by Friedman and some guests. When they reported the abuse, the investigation showed, Friedman retaliated by firing employees or trying to blackball them in the industry.

The former employees will share a $240,000 settlement paid out over two years and, for the next 10 years, 20% of Friedman’s profits from the restaurant, including any money he makes if he sells the business, of which he owns 75% to 80%. The West Village restaurant, which opened in 2004, became a magnet for VIPs drawn by its clubby ambience and exclusive third-floor party room; its other investors, including celebrities like Jay-Z and Fatboy Slim, are not involved in the case.

Unlike a tentative $25 million settlement the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has negotiated with the attorney general and other parties, the money for the women victimized by Friedman will come directly from the personal wealth of the man who harassed them. In the proposed settlement with Weinstein, who faces lawsuits involving dozens of women alleging sexual harassment and misconduct, the money would largely come from insurers.

The attorney general, Letitia James, announced the Friedman settlement at a news conference Tuesday in New York City, with five of the former employees in attendance.

“No matter how high-profile the establishment, or how seemingly powerful the owners, today’s settlement reiterates the fact that we will not tolerate sexual harassment of any form in the workplace,” James said in a statement that thanked the women “for their bravery, their voices, and their unwavering commitment to ensuring a safe, harassment-free workplace.”

Friedman issued a statement Tuesday through a publicist. “While I am aware that nothing will completely repair the damage I’ve caused, and although I disagree with several of the allegations, I hope this agreement will bring some comfort to those former employees impacted by my behavior,” it said in part, adding: “I’m sorry for the harm I have caused, and for being part of an environment where women were afraid to speak up. I will spend the rest of my life regretting my actions, and trying to be someone worthy of the respect and love of my family.”

The investigation, which began in 2018, also found that employees had endured “severe and pervasive incidents of unwanted touching and unwelcome sexual advances” by the celebrity chef Mario Batali, once an investor and a frequent guest at the Spotted Pig.

Those incidents included regularly groping employees and grabbing their buttocks and breasts on multiple occasions. One employee, the investigation found, saw Batali grope a “nearly unconscious” woman in the third-floor party room; another reported seeing him perform oral sex on a woman in a part of the restaurant where staff went to take breaks and get supplies.

The inquiry into Batali remains open, and investigators have asked that anyone with additional information about the chef’s behavior to contact the office.

Batali is facing both civil and criminal proceedings in Massachusetts, over an incident in a Boston bar in 2017 in which a woman claims the chef groped her as the two were taking a photograph; he has pleaded not guilty to charges of indecent assault and battery. A year ago, the New York Police Department closed three investigations into sexual assault allegations against Batali because detectives could not find enough evidence to make an arrest.

Batali could not be reached Tuesday for comment; in past statements, he has apologized for his actions but not addressed the specific allegations.

Several of the former Spotted Pig employees said that after news of Weinstein’s tentative settlement broke in December, they were particularly gratified that the funds for their own payout will come directly from their abuser.

Many of them worked at the restaurant for years, during the frenetic period when its chef, April Bloomfield, shot to stardom, would-be diners lined up on the sidewalk for hours, and Friedman held raucous court with friends like the broadcaster Charlie Rose, who was later fired by CBS and PBS over sexual harassment allegations.

“It is great to get compensation for what we all endured,” said Natalie Saibel, who worked at the Spotted Pig from 2008-15. “But more than the money, it’s satisfying to see someone be held personally and financially responsible, and we hope other women will see that it’s possible.” Saibel and her husband were both fired for minor offenses soon after they reported Friedman’s sexual aggressions toward her; the attorney general’s report called their firings “pretextual.”

Many of the women first spoke out in The Times in December 2017, describing incidents in which Friedman kissed them against their will, and pressured them for sex and sexually implicit photographs.

Those allegations and others were verified by the attorney general’s office, which outlined in a court document an environment in which Friedman and his guests regularly made sexually explicit comments and suggestions to the staff. When employees tried to report the incidents, they were often fired or retaliated against, the investigation found.

As part of the settlement, which Friedman signed on Dec. 18, he will step down as an operator of the Spotted Pig and will no longer have any role in its operations or management. The restaurant will adopt a strict new set of policies to inform employees of their rights under the law, and to provide training to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

April Bloomfield, the chef who was Friedman’s business partner at the Spotted Pig, was one of more than three dozen people interviewed in the course of the investigation. Though Bloomfield is in the process of divesting from the Spotted Pig and is not liable for payments under the settlement, she still owns between 20% and 25% of the business — a figure in dispute between the two, the attorney general’s office said.

Still, the agreement states that she shares some responsibility for the hostile workplace: “Except for a short period during 2015, the Spotted Pig maintained no human resources department, no sexual harassment policy, and no process by which employees could report complaints about Friedman other than complaining to the General Manager, Friedman himself, or Bloomfield. Despite her ownership and managerial role in the company, Bloomfield took no action to mitigate or prevent future harassment.”

In an October 2018 interview for The Times, Bloomfield acknowledged not doing enough to protect employees, but said that she also had been manipulated and terrorized by Friedman during their working relationship. At one time, the two operated seven restaurants together in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Today, only two remain open: the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, in the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where Bloomfield is the chef.)

Erin Fein, who worked at the Spotted Pig and also at Hearth & Hound, the Los Angeles restaurant that Friedman and Bloomfield opened days before the Times report was published, said she was “blown away” by the investigation and its resolution. After two decades in the restaurant business, being constantly touched and propositioned by male bosses and customers, “you feel powerless and afraid and you assume that nothing will be done,” she said.

The settlement is a victory for working women, said Trish Nelson, a longtime server who said she was frequently harassed by Friedman and his guests. “Change is possible,” she said at the news conference. “It’s happening right this very minute.”

Still, there is still a long way to go, she said. “We know we have only scratched the surface of the problems in this industry.”

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