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Tax-Scheme Objections Cost Viacom VP, She Says

MANHATTAN (CN) - Viacom wanted it to look like profits from popular characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dora the Explorer came from the Netherlands, and it fired a vice president who objected to the tax-avoidance scheme, she claims in a federal complaint.

Nataki Williams says Viacom's scheme required a nominal entity in the Netherlands buy the rights to successful children's characters like Dora, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, according to the complaint filed Jan. 5.

Though Viacom expected to save millions in U.S. taxes, Williams says she believed the scheme was illegal and would wind up costing shareholders if authorities ever caught wind of it.

Williams says she was in her third year on the job at Viacom and her second month as vice president of financial planning and analysis when she became aware of the tax-avoidance scheme in April 2010.

About a year earlier, Viacom had acquired the international licensing rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise from 4Kids Entertainment and the Mirage Group, the two companies that published the original turtle comics in 1984.

Williams says she was among several employees who voiced objections to the plan, and that a senior VP among this group was soon fired.

Though Viacom shelved the tax-avoidance idea in 2010 - a year that profits related to the turtles remained low - the plan re-emerged three years later in anticipation of a movie on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set for release in summer 2014, according to the complaint.

Williams says Dora and SpongeBob were in the mix as well by this point.

Heightening her suspicion of the fraud, Williams says Viacom's special vice president of international tax verbally advised finance staff not to include details of the Netherlands transfer scheme in emails.

Williams nevertheless objected to the tax-avoidance plans in a September 2013 email to Viacom's Global Tax Department head Jay Kushner, according to her suit.

She allegedly voiced the same appeal to her Viacom supervisors in an October 2013 conference call, noting that her job would put her right in the middle of any tax-restructuring scheme.

Viacom allegedly waited until Williams took maternity leave in 2014 to retaliate, using some inconsequential error in her benefits paperwork as a pretext to can her.

Though Viacom accused Williams of misrepresenting the father of her child as her spouse, Williams blames Viacom for the paperwork error and notes that she alerted the insurers to the issue back in 2013.

The designation "in the end was of no consequence, as unmarried and married partners are treated equally under the plan in effect at the time," the complaint states.

Viacom noted in a statement that it terminated Williams "for fraudulently claiming company benefits to which she was not entitled."

"Her legal claims are completely without merit, and we will vigorously defend against these claims in court," the statement continues.

Seeking reinstatement and back pay, Williams contends that Viacom fired her in violation of Sarbanes-Oxley Act whistleblower protections.

Williams is represented by Jason Rozger at Beranbaum Menken.

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