Examining The Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees of The Cleveland Orchestra

Today’s article examines the Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees of The Cleveland Orchestra. The report was the result of an independent investigation into sexual misconduct charges against former Concertmaster William Preucil and former Principal Trombonist, Massimo La Rosa. This review focuses on several of the report’s key findings.

Scope of Investigation

The introduction material does an excellent job at providing transparency about the firm that conducted the investigation, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP (“Debevoise”), the investigation’s original scope, and how the investigation expanded to include La Rosa in the wake of allegations received after the investigator’s began their process.

Also of note is the statement that the investigation included examining the Cleveland Orchestra’s role in processing complaints.

Debevoise also sought to determine whether members of the Orchestra’s management or trustees learned of instances of sexual misconduct and what actions, if any, the management or the Board took in response to that information. (Section I.)

Having said that, the investigators make clear the report includes information that was only provided voluntarily and may therefore not be entirely comprehensive.

The findings in this report are limited to information that the investigators could obtain through voluntary interviews and documentary evidence. The investigators carefully analyzed all information in order to make their determinations about the credibility of what they learned. To assess credibility, the investigators considered, among other things, whether the information was provided by someone with direct knowledge, whether there were multiple sources for the information, and whether contemporaneous documentation or reports corroborated the information. (Section I.)

This is not an unusual limit of scope for an independent investigation of this nature, but it does indicate reasonable expectations that additional information could become public knowledge beyond what’s included in the report.

Moreover, while the investigation did include a review of institutional processes and decisions, there’s no direct mention of any executive leader (board or administrative) or motivations for decisions when allegations were presented.

The Cleveland Orchestra has omitted any reference to these investigative points in their public statements.

Key Finding: victims were as young as 17

While I have no desire to focus on the more salacious details included in the report, there’s one that simply can’t be ignored: the investigators determined that both Preucil and La Rosa had victims as young as 17 years of age.

The earliest instance of misconduct directly reported to the investigators took place in 1996, and the latest reported incident took place in 2007. The youngest victim was 17.  (Section III.A.2.)

The age of consent in Ohio and Iowa (where some of La Rosa’s charges occurred), is 16. However, both states contain authoritarian figure provisions, which apply to teachers, coaches, employers, or clergy members, that raises the age to 18.

Key Finding: victims were employees and non-employees

The investigators determined Preucil engaged in misconduct with both employees and non-employees tangentially connected to his position in the orchestra.

Preucil used one-on-one opportunities with female musicians to engage in actions ranging from serious sexual misconduct to sexually harassing behavior, including engaging in sexual activity with a junior female colleague who was too afraid to stop the encounter due to Preucil’s forcible conduct and position of authority, requesting payment for lessons in the form of sexual favors, exposing himself, and making aggressive, unsolicited, and unwanted sexual advances. (Section III.A.2.)

When asked if he ever had an intimate or sexual relationship with a member of the orchestra or a substitute musician, investigators said La Rosa declined to answer.

Key Finding: both Preucil and La Rosa admitted to sexual misconduct

Debevoise made clear, in no uncertain terms, that both Preucil and La Rosa engaged in sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.

During an interview with Debevoise on October 18, 2018, Preucil admitted to engaging in sexual contact with three female students during or after lessons, and said that his behavior on all three occasions was wrong. He admitted to telling a sexually explicit story to one female violinist. (section III.A.4.)

While Preucil denied additional allegations, the investigators determined his denials were not credible.

La Rosa asserted his sexual misconduct was limited to kissing a student.

While the investigators understand that La Rosa admitted to engaging in inappropriate behavior with a student at Iowa to current Orchestra management but characterized the incident as an error in judgment, he admitted during the interview that his behavior during that lesson was wrong. He admitted that he attempted to kiss the student while she was lying on the floor during a breathing exercise. He claimed that when she asked him to stop, he did so immediately. He acknowledged that he later apologized to the student. (Section III.B.4.)

Key Finding: in addition to sexual misconduct, one subject engaged in coercing victims into silence

In addition to misconduct, the investigators determined Preucil threatened at least one of his violin students to keep his misconduct private.

Preucil attempted to contact several women after engaging in misconduct during a lesson to instruct them to keep quiet about his behavior, and explicitly threatened one woman with consequences if she told anyone about their encounter. (Section III.B.2.)

Key Finding: lack of credibility during interviews

The report does not mince words when it comes to the fact that investigators found both Preucil and La Rosa to be less than credible. Conversely, they point out that the victims they spoke with, along with corroborating sources, provided “detailed, credible, and consistent accounts.”

Based on the number of detailed and consistent reports that Debevoise received from female musicians that Preucil engaged in sexual misconduct and sexually harassing behavior, many of which were corroborated by witnesses to whom the victims disclosed the events at the time, and some of which have now been corroborated by Preucil himself, Preucil’s denial that he engaged in additional misconduct is not credible. (Section III.A.4.)

When characterizing La Rosa’s statements, the investigators went so far as to include a footnote providing additional insight into how they arrived at their decision about his lack of credibility.

Based on the number of detailed and credible reports that Debevoise received that directly contradict a number of La Rosa’s statements in the interview, Debevoise does not credit his characterization of his interactions with students or his denials regarding additional acts of misconduct.4

4. Given contemporaneous information confirming the students’ accounts and the consistency of their stories, which contradict La Rosa’s persistent denials of any additional inappropriate behavior, La Rosa’s version of events is not credible to the investigators.

Key Finding: even after allegations of misconduct, the orchestra failed to adequately document the incidents

In La Rosa’s case, the orchestra was made aware of alleged sexual misconduct by two different universities. Even after reaching agreement with the second academic institution that La Rosa would have limited interactions with students, the employer never documented any of the instances they were made aware of in La Rosa’s personnel file.

The Orchestra’s management at the time discussed the Iowa allegations with La Rosa, who characterized the incident as a “misunderstanding.” There was no contemporaneous documentation of either the article or the request from University 1 in La Rosa’s personnel file. Former management was also contacted by a representative from a second university (“University 2”) in or around late 2014 or early 2015. University 2 expressed concerns about the Iowa complaint and requested that La Rosa no longer instruct students at their institution one-on-one. The Orchestra agreed to impose limitations on La Rosa’s interactions with students at University 2. The request from University 2 and the Orchestra’s response were also not documented in La Rosa’s file. (Section III.B.3.)

Failure to document these incidents is a clear breach of human resource best practices. It also risks projecting an image that the institution is focused more on protecting its own image than rising to the expectation of providing a safe workplace for employees, patrons, and recipients of educational activities.

Key Finding: the report identifies numerous failures on part of the employer to exercise appropriate oversight

Investigators chronicled no less than seven instances where executive administers and/or individual members of the orchestra’s Board of Trustees were made aware allegations.

The report’s conclusion raises serious questions about the orchestra’s failure to meet Federal guidelines on employer liability for unlawful harassment.

HR consultant and journalist, Ruth Mayhew, wrote an article for the Houston Chronicle about this subject, provides a concise summary of these guidelines:

Employers have an additional responsibility to hold supervisors accountable for their actions, involvement and behavior associated with sexual harassment. When supervisors engage in unlawful behavior or turn a blind eye towards sexual harassment, the employer can be held liable for supervisors’ missteps or failure to acknowledge incidents of unlawful harassment and discrimination. Many employers take a firm position on a supervisor’s role in reporting and responding to incidents of sexual harassment.

– Mayhew, Ruth. “Employers Responsibilities for Addressing Employees Complaints of Sexual Harassment.” Small Business – Chron.com

While the report manages to render decisive conclusions on allegations against Preucil and La Rosa, it takes a much lighter touch regarding the employer’s accountability.

Debevoise heard from multiple witnesses that they felt the Orchestra had not appropriately addressed some of these allegations, including past media reports that Preucil and La Rosa engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with students and expressions of concern from members of the Orchestra. Based on information we obtained during this investigation, we have determined that there were several instances in which former Orchestra management and former Board leadership should have done more to investigate reports of sexual misconduct by both Preucil and La Rosa. (Section IV.)

Nonetheless, in its conclusion section, Debevoise praised the employer stating what they characterized as full cooperation. Outside of recommending revisions to the employer’s sexual harassment policy and adopting a board policy that all Trustees receiving reports of misconduct refer allegations to Board leadership for investigation, there is no mention of liability.

Ultimately, the institution’s credibility is at stake and their full range of stakeholders and supporters deserve an investigation into issues of employer liability as thorough as the one performed into allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of employees.

I’ve reached out to the Cleveland Orchestra with a series of questions related to the organization’s plans on moving forward beyond measures already announced. We’ll revisit these issues and more once the organization has had an opportunity to reply.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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