PBS Hires Paula Deen’s Former Lawyer in Legal Battle With Tavis Smiley (Exclusive)

Grace Speights, an employment litigation specialist, represented the celebrity chef in her 2013 sexual and racial harassment suit

Last Updated: May 15, 2018 @ 2:28 PM

PBS has hired the same lawyer that celebrity chef Paula Deen used in her workplace racial discrimination suit, to represent the network in its legal battle with Tavis Smiley.

In February, Smily sued PBS  for firing him over sexual misconduct allegations, claiming that the network breached its contract and damaged his production company.

Grace Speights, an employment litigation specialist and partner in the D.C. office of Morgan Lewis, will be leading PBS’ legal team in the case, according to the network. An initial scheduling conference is set for later this month in D.C. Superior Court.

Speights represented Deen in 2013 after the TV chef and her brother were sued by a former employee for sexual harassment and racially offensive talk. The lawsuit, which prompted Deen to admit among other things that of course” she has used the “N-word,” was later settled.

Speights also led the legal team hired by NPR to investigate the company’s handling of inappropriate behavior by former top news executive Michael Oreskes. The review found that questions were raised about Oreskes’ behavior toward women even before he was hired.

PBS dropped Smiley’s late-night interview program, “Tavis Smiley,” in December over what it said were “multiple, credible allegations” of workplace misconduct. The network did not elaborate on what the specific accusations were. But according to Variety, Smiley had sexual relationships with employees of his company, TS Media, and that some feared their jobs were in jeopardy if they refused.

Smiley said PBS never presented him with the names of his accusers, nor did the network release any details of an investigation into his workplace relationships that led up to his dismissal. In media interviews, Smiley has repeatedly criticized PBS for making, what he called, a “huge mistake.” Earlier this year, Smiley went on a five-city tour focusing on workplace harassment.

In February, Smiley filed a lawsuit accusing PBS of acting in “a racially hostile manner” over the years.

In response, PBS filed a countersuit against Smiley seeking $1.9 million in salary and providing more detail about the accusations, accusing him of “having sexual encounters with subordinates,” and “making unwanted sexual advances toward subordinates, including requests for specific sexual acts.”

During a December 2017 interview with an investigator, Smiley admitted to some of the conduct, PBS said, “including having multiple sexual encounters with subordinates.”

In a March statement to TheWrap, a spokesperson for Smiley called PBS’s answer to his complaint “lies, half-truths and smears.”

In January, Smiley announced he had signed a deal for a new series about inspirational stories. The show called “The Upside with Tavis Smiley,” has been airing on the Word Network, an African-American religious television station.

Smiley did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.