Inside Air America Extra: Lizz Winstead Case
An Investigative Blog Report
BY BRIAN MALONEY AND MICHELLE MALKIN
On May 20, 2005, comedian Lizz Winstead filed suit in New York, detailing a laundry list of allegations against Air America Radio parent Piquant LLC.
Accusing the company of failing to pay wages, promotional fees, accrued holiday compensation and severance, Winstead is seeking $290,716, plus interest.
You can download her entire complaint here.
Does the company's behavior toward her help to demonstrate a pattern of ethics and integrity lapses in its overall business dealings?
Beyond the allegedly withheld payments, it must have been an especially bitter experience. After all, she was Air America's first "creative" hire, joining in 2003, when the network was little more than an a cocktail napkin idea.
In addition, there's little doubt Winstead's biggest shock came on July 5th, when Air America's legal response was filed. It's disclosed to the public for the first time here, along with many previously unreported details.
'Daily Show' Brought Success
After a bumpy career path, Winstead found major success as co-creator of "The Daily Show With Craig Kilborn", but departed in early 1998, after Kilborn made apparently offensive public remarks about her. Later, she appeared in guest spots on other programs.
It seems clear Winstead was utilized in dual programming and on-air roles at Air America. Published reports from early 2004 listed her in both, here and here. Mediaweek noted she'd been programmer and host, in this blurb regarding her exit.
It's not known what was in her original employment agreement, or for which programming decisions Winstead may have been responsible (other than her own "Unfiltered"). One thing isn't in dispute: on May 24, 2004, she agreed to sign a release supplied by the company.
What exactly it was intended to cover is exceptionally confusing. Winstead believed it to be a release of monetary claims against Progress Media, so Piquant could take it over, without facing demands for unpaid compensation.
But wait a second-- Air America's party line is that Piquant merely purchased the assets of Progress Media, not its liabilities. Why the worries, then, about past claims being brought against the new company?
Perhaps Air America/Piquant contradicted itself. If it was strictly an asset sale, as they claim, there should have been no reason to force air talent to sign releases. Does this bolster Multicultural Radio's "sham transaction" legal theory, as they seek to recover over a million dollars in a separate complaint?
After May 24th, 2004, Winstead believed her previous employment terms remained, with an annual management salary of $250,000, plus options, a potential bonus, profit-sharing, an AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) union-designated scale wage for her on-air duties ($225,000), less $50,000, for reasons not disclosed in her complaint.
Air America appeared to see things differently, however, taking the release to mean a wiping out of her previous agreement. Winstead asserts Piquant paid her only the management salary and as a result, didn't report her wages to AFTRA.
As an on-air host, Winstead provided promotional endorsements for the Vermont Teddy Bear Company. In talk radio, such compensation is often paid by the advertiser directly to the host, but Air America instead billed the firm. She says they never passed the money along.
In addition, she contends severance and holiday pay were not paid, bringing the total figure requested to $290,716, plus interest.
Repeated attempts to contact Winstead for comment have not been answered. Air America hasn't responded to our requests for information on any subject.
Air America's Bizarre Answer
Winstead must have had quite a shock when she received the company's July 5th response (was it filed within the 20 days allowed by law? We're not sure).
Air America's answer to her complaint (download it here) couldn't have been more bizarre. Coming from the firm of Beldock, Levine and Hoffman LLP, rather than their usual representatives at Latham & Watkins LLP, it contained strange and seemingly contradictory assertions.
Weirdest of all: Air America Radio now officially denies Lizz Winstead ever served in a management capacity!
Here's a portion of Air America's answer:
Almost as strange: Winstead essentially worked for Piquant for nearly a year, drawing just the management salary, not the other for serving as "Unfiltered" co-host.
Did she get increasingly vocal about the situation? Is that why she alone was fired, while her two co-hosts were reassigned?
Key is her contention that wages weren't reported to AFTRA, a likely indication remaining pay corresponded to her administrative duties.
If Winstead was paid a management salary, how can they now say she never served in that role?
And why did they believe her signed release, combined with the transfer from Progress to Piquant, meant her previous employment agreement was null and void?
When filing suit, the other party's response isn't often predictable. Can you imagine the look on Winstead's face, however, when she first saw their answers?
It's clear Air America and its apologists would like to rewrite history to make Winstead invisible.
In addition, it doesn't appear she will soon back down from her claims.
If she does win the case, however, will the company have any assets with which to repay her?
AAR Scandal/ Franken by Darleen Click.
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