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Assault Cases Oust HBO Chief

Las Vegas— HBO's former chairman and CEO, Chris Albrecht, seemed to have everything professionally, but he may have lost it all by exhibiting behavior more fitting for an episode of The Sopranos than conduct becoming a respected executive.

Albrecht earned his pink slip by being accused of throttling his girlfriend early last Sunday (May 6), after apparently partying too hard in Las Vegas in the afterglow of HBO's successfully promoted Floyd Mayweather-Oscar de la Hoya super welterweight fight and pay-per-view event.

He might have survived the hit to his reputation had not allegations surfaced three days later of another assault on a female, this one 16 years ago.

TRIED A MEA CULPA

Initially, it appeared his career would survive. Two days after being jailed for 12 hours, Albrecht issued a mea culpa in the form of an e-mail to colleagues, admitting his past abuse of alcohol and voluntarily seeking a leave of absence.

But when a story appeared Wednesday (May 9) in the Los Angeles Times, carrying details of a previously confidential payment made by HBO in 1991 to an Albrecht underling who also was alleged to have been physically abused by the cable executive, HBO parent Time Warner Inc. gave him his walking papers.

“[Time Warner chairman and CEO] Dick Parsons did exactly the right thing. The best course is a clean break,” said Fraser Seitel, managing partner of Emerald Partners, a New Jersey-based firm specializing in crisis communications. “It stops the stories about the problem,” he said, bringing the distraction caused by the allegations to a quicker end.

The arrest was a major distraction in the halls of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, where thousands of industry executives attending The Cable Show weren't talking about Time Warner Cable's technological advances or video-on-demand successes, or even about how HBO will manage the transition to a post-Sopranos era (the series finale airs June 10).

Instead, Cable Show attendees were swapping increasingly embellished versions of what allegedly happened because the facts behind the events that led to Albrecht's incarceration were not provided by law enforcement until late on May 9.

According to an edited police report, read to Multichannel News by Sgt. John Loretto of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, police officers saw Albrecht assaulting his girlfriend in the valet parking area of the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino shortly after 3 a.m on May 6. The hotel's events center had been the scene, hours earlier, of the HBO Sports pay-per-view prizefight.

Officers were at the site as part of a special-events detail. They reported seeing Albrecht grab the woman around the throat with both hands. Then, he tried to drag her off in a northbound direction, according to the report. An MGM Grand security guard pulled one of Albrecht's hands off the woman. The woman had visible red marks on her neck, according to the report.

Officers reported Albrecht smelled of alcohol and appeared unsteady on his feet. By way of explanation for his actions, the executive is quoted as saying the woman had “pissed me off.” Albrecht informed officers he was the CEO of HBO, according to the report.

The victim declined medical attention and stated repeatedly she would not prosecute Albrecht or cooperate in an investigation. But based on the actions witnessed by law enforcement, Albrecht was arrested and held in the Clark County Detention Center for the 12-hour “cooling off” period mandated in domestic abuse cases, according to police.

The office of county District Attorney David Roger could not consider prosecution of the case until it was presented to them by police, a D.A.'s assistant said. Late last week, prosecutors were still mulling charges. Albrecht was arrested for alleged misdemeanor domestic battery, police said.

After the alleged crime was reported off the police blotter, HBO and Time Warner declined comment while rumors swirled. Media outlets including Multichannel News received calls from people alleging this was not the first time Albrecht had put his hands on a woman.

The first official comment came Tuesday [May 8], when the 54-year-old executive sent a memo to HBO employees. Albrecht said he'd been a “sober member for Alcoholics Anonymous for 13 years, but two years ago, I decided that I could handle drinking again. Clearly, I was wrong.”

He vowed to return to AA and asked for a leave of absence, granted by Time Warner. His statement made it clear he hoped to return.

That leave became permanent the next day. On May 9, the Los Angeles Times printed details of a settlement with a former HBO employee the paper identified as Sasha Emerson. Albrecht had had a romantic relationship with the woman, the story said, and after it ended, he allegedly assaulted her. The company allegedly paid between $400,000 and $500,000 to buy Emerson out of her contract. The newspaper said the payment was approved by Jeff Bewkes, now Time Warner's president and chief operating officer, although others have since pointed out that Michael Fuchs was HBO chairman at the time. The human resources person handling the sexual harassment complaint was said to be a direct report of Bewkes's.

Albrecht, who joined HBO in 1985 after stints as a comedy club co-owner and Hollywood agent, became chairman and CEO in 2002, when Bewkes became chairman of Time Warner's entertainment and networks group.

Later that day (May 9), Time Warner released a terse statement that the company and Albrecht had agreed the executive would no longer serve as HBO chairman and CEO. HBO chief operating officer Bill Nelson has assumed Albrecht's duties.

POTENTIAL STOCK IMPACT

“I don't think they could have done any differently,” said Don Klaskin of Corporate Resolutions, a New York business-investigations firm that handles corporate ethics investigations. The revelations in the California newspaper indicate “someone inside held a grudge.” If the company did not cut Albrecht loose, “the stories would only continue to fester,” Klaskin said.

Also, Time Warner executives had to consider the possibility of a shareholder lawsuit. “What if a chain of events, related to this case, caused the stock to drop? That would be a shareholder lawsuit waiting to happen,” he said.

David Joyce, media equity analyst for Miller Tabak, which tracks Time Warner, said he didn't think Albrecht's firing would have a negative impact on the media conglomerate's overall value.

“Granted, he was a talented manager, but he's not the only guy there, though,” he said, adding people behind the scenes at HBO “really have their act together.”

Time Warner's stock price closed at $21.37 on Thursday, down 43 cents on the day.