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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Fired for Whistleblowing, Starz Exec Claims

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Starz Entertainment fired its only high-level black executive for protesting rather than participating in illegal activities and for advocating hiring more minority employees, he claims in court.

Keno V. Thomas, 57, claims he was Starz's only "senior-level African-American" when it fired him in October 2014. Thomas joined the cable company in 2004 as senior vice president of sales and affiliate marketing, and was in charge of accounts that brought in about 45 percent of its annual revenue, he says in his Oct. 29 lawsuit in Superior Court.

At Starz, Thomas says, he was named among the "Most Influential Minorities in Cable" by Cablefax magazine, but that changed after he "expressed his concerns about unlawful activities, refused to participate in illegal behaviors, and advocated on behalf of minorities."

During a business dinner at the Palm Restaurant in Los Angeles on April 28, 2014, Thomas claims, Starz Chief Revenue Officer Michael Thornton "bragged about how he and [Starz chairman Gregory] Maffei successfully and illegally manipulated a pending merger for Starz's financial gain."

Thornton used Maffei's positions on both the Comcast and Starz boards of directors to get Comcast to agree to a "clandestine" deal that extended Comcast's affiliate deal with Starz, though Comcast taking a loss on the deal, according to the complaint.

Starz repaid the favor by voting in favor of a merger between Comcast and Time Warner, Thomas says, though that deal collapsed due to opposition from government regulators.

Thomas says he told Thornton on the evening of the dinner that such actions "may constitute insider manipulation and unfair influence on a pending merger."

The complaint continues: "Mr. Thornton sternly warned Mr. Thomas to never repeat what he just said because it could cost Mr. Thomas his job. Mr. Thornton then stormed off angrily."

Although he was in charge of Starz's DirecTV account, Thomas says, Thornton and others excluded him from contract negations to extend an agreement for DirecTV to continue offering Starz programming, but DirecTV dropped its marketing support for Starz during the negotiations period and did not resume it until after a new contract was in place.

With no initial marketing support for its DirecTV programming packages, Thomas says, Starz's revenue dropped, and Thornton directed him and his staff to "arbitrarily inflate the revenue figures and subscriber numbers," because he did not want to present unfavorable revenue figures to the board.

Thomas says he refused to juggle the numbers, whereupon Starz fired him for whistleblowing, refusing to break the law and for advocating on behalf of minority employees, and for "bringing to light" the "unlawful influence" exerted during the Comcast deal.

Thomas claims Starz has a history of racial problems, including many discrimination complaints from workers, particularly women. He says he often spoke to human resources about lack of diversity at Starz, "which subjected him to ridicule at the hands of Starz' management."

Many women expressed concern, he says, when Starz hired defendant Chris Albrecht as its CEO, though HBO had fired him after he was arrested for attacking his girlfriend and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery. And, he claims, HBO had previously settled a civil lawsuit for $400,000 for an incident in which Albrecht "was accused of assaulting and choking a female HBO employee."

Thomas said that in 2013 he advised Thornton and others that Starz "should reconsider using the artist 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) in its advertisements because 50 Cent was facing domestic violence charges and for which he faced potential imprisonment."

Thornton "mistakenly believed" that he mentioned that as a reference to Albrecht's history of domestic violence, Thomas says, and "berated him," warning him that "Albrecht could retaliate against him for discussing Mr. Albrecht's highly publicized domestic violence arrest."

He claims that his 10 years of advocacy for minorities and women brought him "deplorable treatment" from Starz that forced him to take three weeks medical leave for depression in September 2014, and that though Starz approved his leave, it fired him upon his return.

Thomas seeks punitive damages for retaliation, failure to prevent retaliation, wrongful termination and emotional distress. Named as defendants are Liberty Media, Starz, Starz Entertainment, Thornton and Albrecht.

He is represented by Dan Stormer, with Hadsell Stormer & Renick, of Pasadena, who did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Nor did Starz.

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