Gustavo Martinez was sued last week by JWT’s head of communications, Erin Johnson, over claims he made numerous racist comments and jokes about rape.
WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell sent an internal memo to staff yesterday that confirmed the holding company was retaining Proskauer Rose, an international law firm, to conduct an independent investigation.
In the memo, Sorrell says: "I just wanted to update you on the Erin Johnson lawsuit. We have decided to retain an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations in the complaint.
"Bettina Plevan of Proskauer Rose LLP will lead this. Feel free to use this information with clients, our people and other parties as you see fit."
Plevan, who has served as president of the New York City Bar, is a leading labor lawyer who has represented many high-profile defendants in discrimination suits, including the late Penthouse owner Bob Guccione. In that case, cited as one of her landmark wins, she successfully appealed a $4 million sexual harassment awarded to a former Penthouse Pet.
Davis & Gilbert, a firm that according to its website has represented WPP in "virtually all of its acquisitions," remains counsel to WPP and JWT, but Plevan is now leading the investigation, said a source familiar with the case.
The law suit claims Martinez made numerous racist comments and rape jokes, creating an atmosphere that made it impossible for Johnson to do her job. The suit also claims Martinez made derogatory comments about Jewish and African American people in front of employees and repeated rape jokes focused on Johnson and other female members of staff.
On March 10, the day Johnson filed the discrimination suit, WPP issued a statement saying its lawyers had been investigating the matter and had not yet found evidence to support the accusations detailed in the suit. "WPP’s lawyers have been conducting an enquiry into previous correspondence on these matters since February 25 and have found nothing, as yet, to substantiate these charges," said the memo.
Johnson filed the discrimination suit against Martinez, WPP and JWT in federal court alleging that Martinez repeatedly made racist and sexist comments, rendering it "impossible for her to do her job." According to the suit, Martinez frequently referred to black people as "monkeys," complained about "the fucking Jews" and joked in front of colleagues about raping Johnson and other female staffers.
Martinez has denied the allegations.
It is understood that an amended suit has been filed that has criticised WPP’s investigation into the matter up until now and has asked for permission to submit as evidence a video which they say corroborates some of the allegations made against Martinez.
Finsbury, a WPP PR agency, has been providing crisis communications and reputation management support to JWT. Finsbury started working with the firm immediately after Erin Johnson filed a 28-page discrimination lawsuit against Martinez, JWT, and parent company WPP in New York last Thursday.
WPP declined to comment.