MANHATTAN (CN) - NBC Universal harassed and retaliated against a news producer it used to lure sexual deviants into meeting with her to develop stories for the network's series "Wild, Wild Web," the former employee claims in court.
Kimberly Lengle sued NBCUniversal Media and Yoh Services, in New York County Supreme Court. They are the only defendants.
NBCUniversal owns major television networks and cable channels, including the National Broadcast Company (NBC).
Lengle, previously a reporter and producer for news networks in Albany and Westchester County, joined NBC in December 2012 as a field producer and undercover reporter for its "Dateline NBC" news broadcast, according to her lawsuit.
Lengle says NBC hired her on a trial basis through staffing agency Yoh, and promised her a permanent position and a raise if she did well.
Lengle began working with producers for NBC's series called "Wild, Wild Web," which uses hidden cameras to investigate the world of online classified advertisements, including ads on Craigslist and Backpage, according to the lawsuit.
Almost immediately, Lengle says, supervising producers began assigning her stories that centered on sexual activities, often of a deviant nature. She claims that supervisors used her and other female producers as decoys to attract possible criminals or predators the network wanted to investigate. NBC asked its female employees to answer the targets' online advertisements and send them pictures of themselves.
"Lengle was excited about the opportunity to work on Dateline NBC, one of the few news programs still featuring investigative journalism," the complaint states. "After she began working for NBC, however, Dan Slepian ('Slepian'), the supervising producer of Dateline NBC's 'Wild, Wild Web,' and the other producers pressured Lengle to respond to sex-related advertisements. The resulting stories generally focused on salacious topics such as drug-related prostitution, unregulated breast enhancement treatments, teenage prostitution, human sex trafficking, and sado-masochistic encounters. As part of the story development process, Slepian and other producers required Lengle to act as a sexual decoy in order to lure the individuals posting advertisements (usually men) into meeting with her in person. Slepian often told his female employees, including Lengle, to email their photographs to web posters soliciting sex, despite their concerns about safety. Yet defendants did not direct male producers to work on sex-related stories that required them to engage in sexual role play or to email photographs of themselves. Even though executive producers made it clear that NBC was unlikely to air many of the sexually explicit segments, over time, Slepian increased his pressure on Lengle to act as sexual bait to develop stories.
"Lengle repeatedly expressed discomfort with having to respond to so many sexual advertisements. In particular, her supervisors' pressure to send her photograph to predatory strangers on the Internet made Lengle uncomfortable. Given that Dateline NBC's 'Wild, Wild Web' was a series aimed at exposing dangerous and occasionally illegal online conduct, Lengle and her supervisors were aware that the individuals she was interacting with online were potentially threatening. Yet when Lengle attempted to limit her exposure to these strangers, Slepian abused, ridiculed, and threatened her.
"NBC promised Lengle that it would not punish her for refusing to cover stories that made her uncomfortable. This promise turned out to be false, as defendants subjected Lengle to retaliation following her complaints to the show's producers and human resources about the work assignments. Slepian sabotaged and undermined her work, but NBC failed to take any steps to remedy the problem. After enduring months of gender-based discrimination and an abusive work environment without any hope that the situation would improve, Lengle had no choice but to resign. Defendants' harassment, sexist treatment and retaliation have derailed Lengle's career at a crucial juncture."
Among other job requirements, Lengle and other producers responded to online classified ads using false identities, developed relationships with the posters, and set up meetings to confront them on camera, according to the lawsuit.
Lengle says Slepian, who is not a party to the lawsuit, pushed producers to build relationships with the posters and monitored their interactions.
She says the stories Slepian assigned her focused almost exclusively on sex, and required her to engage in sexual role play and email photographs of herself to targets.
Lengle answered an advertisement for sex and painkillers, another one from a man who called himself the "Sperminator" and offered his services as sperm donor, and an ad for "phone girls" for an escort service, among other examples in the 30-page complaint.
Lengle says she had to meet some of the posters at a cigar bar in Las Vegas, using a hidden camera.
She says the supervisors ignored safety concerns, despite the predatory nature of the ads and despite the recent high-profile "Craigslist killings."
Slepian refused to let producers email stock photos instead of their own, and suggested Lengle send nude photos of herself to a poster looking for "personal assistants," Lengle says in the lawsuit.
She says male producers were not asked to work on sex-related stories or to send pictures of themselves to targets.
What's more, she claims, NBC did not air most of the sex-centered stories she was assigned. And although the network assured her she could say no to stories that made her uncomfortable, the supervisors continued to assign her such stories and pressure her.
Lengle says Slepian hit on her, sent her messages at odd hours, and made clear that "he wanted more attention from her."
After Lengle raised concerns about a sexually deviant assignment, Slepian became hostile, insulted her and threatened her job, according to the complaint.
Lengle talked to a senior producer and to human resources about the pressure from Slepian, but they took no steps to correct the problem, the lawsuit states.
Lengle claims human resources accused her of lying and found no merit in her complaint. In the meantime, she says, Slepian's abusive behavior escalated, compelling her to resign in April 2013.
Lengle says she continued to receive text messages, some of them threatening, from Internet posters soliciting sex after she resigned from NBC.
She seeks punitive damages for sex discrimination and retaliation.
She is represented by Jeremiah Iadevaia with Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard.
An NBCUniversal spokeswoman told Courthouse News: "We took this freelancer's allegations very seriously and determined that her claims were entirely without merit. We will vigorously defend our position in this case.