LAT: Kesha, Dr. Luke and the night they never escaped

Attorney Mark Geragos is a co-owner of Los Angeles magazine.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Mark Geragos had a history of representing high-profile criminal defendants, including Scott Peterson, Chris Brown, Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder. A CNN legal pundit with his own podcast, Geragos knew how to turn a news cycle to his clients’ advantage.

He charged Sebert a modest $25,000 upfront, but their retainer agreement outlined another and potentially more lucrative path to compensation. If he could secure a monetary settlement from Sony or Gottwald apart from improvements to her music contract, the lawyer would keep a third of it.

A month and a half later, Geragos sent a 29-page draft lawsuit to Meiselas, who personally delivered it to the chief executive of Sony Music at the company’s Madison Avenue offices. Then-Chief Executive Morris directed Sony Music’s general counsel, Julie Swidler, to review it while Meiselas waited.

The draft lawsuit was incendiary. It accused Gottwald of sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment and other claims. Sony was named as a co-defendant.

“For the past ten (10) years, Dr. Luke has sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused Ms. Sebert to the point where Ms. Sebert nearly lost her life,” the draft read.

When it came to the Mondrian, the complaint acknowledged Sebert could not recall what happened, but also asserted: “Dr. Luke had given a Ms. Sebert the date rape drug, and had sexual intercourse with her while she was unconscious.”

Some of the shocking allegations had little or nothing to do with Sebert.

“When Dr. Luke’s wife became pregnant, he demanded that she get an abortion, and tried to blackmail her into an abortion by not speaking to her for six months,” read a sentence on the sixth page.

Testifying years later, Swidler said she remembered particularly the portion about Gottwald’s pregnant partner “because I met [Gottwald’s] daughter. I knew Luke, I saw him with his kids.”

When Swidler was done reading the suit, she looked at Meiselas a few feet away.

“I remember just taking a breath and trying not to be emotional about it and just saying to Kenny that I was concerned, particularly given the fact they were seeking to get out of the contract … that a settlement in my view would be impossible if this was the kind of allegations that were going to be brought,” she testified.

In the next few months, settlement proposals were circulated, but no deal materialized.

Geragos escalated. He hired the PR firm Sunshine Sachs in October 2014 at a cost of $15,000 per month. The firm’s crisis communications team summarized its marching orders in a memo titled “Client K — Proposed Press Plan.”

“Our goal is to help extricate CLIENT K from her current professional relationship with PERSON L by inciting a deluge of negative media attention and public pressure on the basis of the horrific personal abuses presented in the lawsuit,” according to the memo later submitted in court.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 14, 2014, in L.A. County Superior Court, was nearly identical to the one shown to Swidler months earlier, though it did not name Sony as a co-defendant. Following the strategy laid out in the memo, an advance copy was provided to a TMZ reporter “in order to achieve the maximum level of negative publicity for PERSON L.”

The TMZ reporter quickly prepared a draft and sent a copy of the unpublished story to his contact at Sunshine Sachs. The reporter cautioned the PR executive that “H,” an apparent reference to the site’s editor, Harvey Levin, would likely “make changes, but at least we can get an idea of what you want or don’t want.”

After TMZ posted its story, Sunshine Sachs was inundated with press inquiries. They’d given TMZ a statement from Geragos saying Sebert had suffered “for ten years as a victim of mental manipulation, emotional abuse and an instance of sexual assault at the hands of Dr. Luke.”

But as the day went on, Sebert’s team adjusted the lawyer’s quote to remove the phrase “an instance of.” That second version was sent to Fox News, The Times, Rolling Stone and other news outlets, allowing the misimpression that Gottwald stood accused of sexually assaulting Sebert repeatedly over a decade.

For a few days, Ke$ha vs. Dr. Luke was the biggest entertainment story in the world. Most people came to learn of the dispute in this window, often with a framing that was damaging to Gottwald.

Geragos did a round of interviews on “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” and “Access Hollywood,” where he stated: “[Gottwald] kind of fed her alcohol while she was underage, then led her to believe she was taking a quote-unquote ‘sober pill.’ Turned out to be GHB. She woke up the next day naked in his bed, sore and knew that he had raped her.”

His statement went beyond what Sebert had previously said. In other public comments, he called Gottwald “a predator” and compared him several times to comedian Bill Cosby. Sebert would later sign an affidavit saying she had not authorized Geragos to make all of the comments he made.

Paul Pringle’s 2022 book (Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels) mentions Mark Geragos:

* [Mark] Geragos had told the Warrens that their civil claim against USC and Puliafito could be worth $10 million or more. He persuaded them to go into mediation for a quicker payout than would be possible through a lawsuit.

The mediator Geragos agreed to was Dickran Tevrizian, a retired federal judge who was a Trojan through and through. Tevrizian held degrees in finance and law from USC, a USC scholarship fund was named for him, and the university honored him with its prestigious Alumni Merit Award. His wife and three siblings were also Trojans. The Warrens told me they had been unaware of any of Tevrizian’s USC connections until after his selection as the mediator—and then they were told only that he was an alumnus. Even that didn’t sit well with Paul Warren, who asked Geragos how Tevrizian could be an impartial arbiter of the family’s claim against his alma mater. Geragos assured him that Tevrizian was a good choice.

(Tevrizian later insisted to me that he had disclosed his Trojan ties to all the parties in the mediation. When I asked him if he had anything in writing to support that, he replied that he would no longer engage with me.)

Everything about the mediation was secret—the participants, the nature of the claim, and the outcome—so my reporting on it had been limited, including with respect to Tevrizian’s role. But I did learn that USC’s lawyers played hardball with the Warrens, with threats to shame them publicly over their own conduct, which the family saw as a smear in the making. One of Geragos’s associates handled most of the case, and the hoped-for $10 million became a $1.5 million offer from USC. The associate persuaded the Warrens to accept it to avoid an interminable and vicious court battle. Of the $1.5 million, $600,000 went to the Geragos firm, a handsome payday for the lawyers.

In return for their end of the money, the Warrens had to agree in writing to never speak publicly about the issues in the mediation—meaning all their encounters with Puliafito—and to help USC quash any subpoenas that might be issued for testimony or records about the ex-dean. It was the sort of nondisclosure agreement that the #MeToo movement, ignited months earlier by the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, wanted scraped from the legal landscape.

There were two more conditions for the Warrens: The family had to surrender to USC all those photos and videos of Puliafito doing drugs, along with any emails, text messages, or anything on paper about him or the university. And the Warrens had to destroy their copies of the images. If they didn’t, there would be no money. Who were they to reject the advice of a famous lawyer? So the deed was accomplished when the lawyers marshaled Paul, Mary Ann, Sarah, and Charles to a tech shop in downtown L.A., where the photos and videos were deleted from their phones and computers—a wipe so thorough that they had to create new Apple IDs when it was completed.

Puliafito was part of the mediation agreement. He and his lawyer signed it, as did attorneys for USC—including Yang. She apparently saw the muzzling of the Warrens and the destruction of their evidence of Puliafito’s drug crimes as part of her charge to conduct an “independent” investigation of the scandal. After I learned of the wiping of the devices, I contacted Yang. She would not speak to me or answer written questions I sent her.

Geragos also refused to be interviewed. Through his attorney, Nikias said he knew nothing about the mediation agreement, even though one of the attorneys who signed it for USC, the university’s general counsel, reported to him. Lacey said she was unaware that the photos and videos and other material were destroyed. “That should be looked into,” she said. As far as I could determine, it was not.

The Warrens’ devices were wiped in November 2017. That was a month after the death of Dora Yoder’s infant boy, a twenty-five-day-old who had meth in his body. The tragedy brought Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detectives into Puliafito’s life.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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