WASHINGTON — Several current or former employees working for the U.S. arm of a major Chinese media company have filed lawsuits that accuse a former Washington bureau chief of sexually harassing interns and employees and retaliating against others who supported their claims.
Phoenix Satellite Television US, the American subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media Group, is facing two lawsuits with similar allegations. One was filed in federal court in New York in January and a second was filed in Washington in July.
Both lawsuits allege sexual harassment by Phoenix's former Washington bureau chief, Zhengzhu Liu. Liu is not himself being sued, though he could be added to the lawsuit later. The lawsuits say Liu's "sexually aggressive behavior included unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments, and sexual assault" both inside and outside the office.
The company is named as a defendant because the lawsuits claim officials knew about Liu's alleged behavior and failed to take action.
The lawsuits also say Liu, who also supervised the New York City bureau, "repeatedly lured and pressured female interns, employees, and job candidates into visiting his hotel room under the guise of discussing job performance or employment opportunities."
The lawsuits say Liu's "message – which Mr. Liu made explicit at times," was that advancing one's career at Phoenix required one to "submit to Mr. Liu's unwanted sexual advances."
Phoenix Satellite Television US said in a statement Monday that it had reviewed the Washington lawsuit and that it is "full of inaccuracies and false statements" about the company. A lawyer for the company, Carter DeLorme, said in a telephone interview that the company investigated sexual assault allegations against Liu brought by an employee in 2012 and subsequently fired him. DeLorme said the company and the employee reached a settlement and that she still works for Phoenix. He said that two interns who alleged sexual harassment did not report it during their internship.
Reached by telephone, Liu declined to discuss the case but said he retired from Phoenix at the end of 2012. Liu's lawyer, Stephen Shawe, said his client "denies he engaged in any unlawful conduct."
A lawyer who represents both the New York and Washington plaintiffs, Lynne Bernabei, said in a telephone interview that she expects two more women who claim they were harassed will be added to the lawsuit.
The New York lawsuit involves an intern in Phoenix's New York office who worked for the company in late 2009 and early 2010 and alleges harassment by Liu.
The Washington lawsuit involves a second intern who worked for the company in the summer of 2012 in the Washington office and also alleges harassment. All the women involved have sought to keep their identities private.
That lawsuit also involves four other current or former employees who say they were retaliated against after supporting the complaint against Liu that was brought by the employee in 2012 and settled. Those employees include a former broadcast engineer, a cameraman, a former commentator and a reporter who covers the White House.
Phoenix said in its statement that the same four employees had made similar retaliation claims in complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC later dismissed those complaints, saying the commission hadn't been able to establish any violation of the law.
Follow Jessica Gresko at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko