EXCLUSIVE: The Paramount Pictures whistleblower who accused the studio’s longtime labor relations chief of embezzling union funds claims that the studio engaged in a “cover-up” and then terminated her in retaliation for reporting him. The studio denies it, but internal Paramount emails reveal that shortly after she blew the whistle, Paramount officials devised a plan to “try to freak her out,” apparently in the hope that she’d accept a severance package and leave the company.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 makes it illegal for publicly traded companies to retaliate against corporate whistleblowers. In her nine-page complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor (read it here), former employee Nichole Goluskin claims that Paramount officials did just that after she came forward with allegations that her boss, Stephen Koppekin, the studio’s longtime EVP Industrial Relations, had been overcharging expenses for travel on behalf of the union pension and health plans that he’d served on for many years as a management trustee.
According to her complaint, an email chain between a top human resources executive and a high-ranking postproduction official shows that they had come up with a plan get her to quit shortly after she blew the whistle on Koppekin in March 2013. Koppekin retired a few weeks later, and Goluskin was given the choice of accepting a new job in postproduction — a job she didn’t want — or accept a severance package and leave the company. Those emails, which were turned over to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration as part of its investigation into her retaliation claim, have been obtained by Deadline (read them here).
“Your plan will backfire,” the postproduction official said that morning in an email to the HR official.
“I’m meeting her today at 10:30,” the HR official replied.
“Yeah but when to try to freak her out and you tell her your (sic) placing her with me,” the postproduction official wrote back, “I think she’ll go for it.”
Later that morning, Goluskin met with the HR official. “(He) was shouting at me, using intimidation, and making threats,” she said in her complaint. “He said if I didn’t move to postproduction that I would have to take severance instead, but those were my only options left. I was absolutely and utterly crushed and devastated.”
Goluskin maintains that the email chain is “smoking gun evidence” that studio officials had decided early on to “inflict emotional distress” on her in order to force her to leave the studio. She reluctantly accepted the postproduction job but had to go on medical leave a week later. “They made it intolerable for me to work there,” she told Deadline. “I had a nervous breakdown after only a week.”
Paramount denies that it retaliated against Goluskin. “There is no merit to the claim of retaliation,” the studio said in a statement to Deadline. “Paramount has acted appropriately in all of its dealings with Ms. Goluskin.
“As soon as this was brought to our attention, Mr. Koppekin promptly retired from his position and we required that he resign from his board seats on certain industry Pension & Health plans and make full restitution,” the studio told Deadline on Friday.
Koppekin denies the allegations and says that Paramount did not force him to retire. “The embezzlement charges are totally not true,” he told Deadline. “Paramount never forced me to resign, and they know they didn’t.” A source close to the respected labor relations executive says that his fall from grace has been “a total nightmare.” A longtime friend and former colleague said she believes it’s all been a terrible mistake and that she can’t believe it’s happening to him. “It must have been a mistake,” she said. “The amount of money is so small – less than $1,500. And he paid it all back.”
Hired in December 2012, Goluskin states in her complaint that only one month into her job she learned that Koppekin “was embezzling money from the pension and health care funds of various entertainment industry labor unions, and had been doing so for many years.” She cites two instances of this in her DOL complaint and submitted receipts that she says prove her charges. The difference in air fares for two examples she provided to the DOL totaled $1,471. Koppekin, however, maintains that he did nothing wrong but miss a flight and turn in the wrong receipts. Goluskin’s complaint states that this is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
According to her DOL complaint, “Mr. Koppekin began sending me duplicate itineraries and receipts for his travels on behalf of these funds. One set of receipts was for calendaring, while the other set of receipts were to be used later on for expense reimbursement. The receipts for expense reimbursement were much more expensive than the receipts for the actual costs of his travels. In his instructions, he told me that his intent was to submit the inflated receipts and pocket the difference of those costs. Upon review of his expenses files from the past two years, I discovered clear records of his practice of submitting fraudulent receipts and pocketing the difference in profit. I realized then that Mr. Koppekin was routinely generating fraudulent and inflated receipts for travel and other expenses as a standard practice. He then instructed me to collect and save the fraudulent receipts for later submission. I collected the receipts, but refused to submit the fraudulent receipts as proper expenses.”
A month after her nervous breakdown, she came back to Paramount in what she describes as a “superfluous” job in human resources. Her requests to be transferred to a position with more value and more job security repeatedly were denied, she said in her complaint, and she was terminated in October in a round of company-wide layoffs.
Her life soon took a turn for the worse. Goluskin, who is candid about her bouts with mental illness, says that she had been diagnosed more than a decade ago as having bipolar 2 disorder, a mild version of the more serious bipolar 1, but that with the help of medication had been “stable for 10 years with no lapses into suicidal ideation.” After her troubles at Paramount, however, she says that she has presented with symptoms of bipolar 1. On her Facebook page, she discusses two suicide attempts since leaving the studio. “Unfortunately, this injustice and dream wreckage caused me to become terribly and suicidally depressed. … I’m still not entirely well, but I’m going to see my Paramount case all the way through until justice is served.”
Goluskin, who has been unemployed since she was laid off at Paramount, received an eviction notice Monday. “I’m at the end of my resources,” she said, and is seeking assistance via GoFundMe.