Michael Avenatti had been practicing law for nearly two decades when filing a lawsuit on behalf of adult film star Stormy Daniels against President Donald Trump made him a household name in March 2018. The suit, which stated that the nondisclosure agreement Daniels had signed about their alleged 2006 affair was invalid, because Trump hadn’t signed it, was the first of three that he filed against the president, and his role in the high-profile cases, coupled with his fierce criticism of Trump, made him a fixture on the cable news circuit, not to mention a rising star among Democrats, one with aspirations for the presidency. But all that changed on March 25, when he was arrested in New York City for allegedly trying to extort as much as $25 million from Nike by threatening to release evidence its employees had violated NCAA rules by paying high-school basketball stars. Later that same day, he was charged with alleged bank fraud and wire fraud by the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, who would go on to charge him with 36 additional financial crimes on April 11. By May 22, federal prosecutors in New York City had charged him with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for allegedly stealing $300,000 from Daniels, now his former client, while negotiating her 2019 book deal. Two weeks later, the State Bar of California started a proceeding to disbar him. His reputation in tatters, Avenatti managed to stay out of the headlines for a few months, until November 13, when federal prosecutors announced that the indictment in the Nike extortion case had been rewritten to drop two charges of conspiracy—and add one of honest services wire fraud. Avenatti, who has pleaded not guilty to each and every count, will stand trial in the Stormy Daniels case in April 2020.
Antonio Brown is known for setting records. During his nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the wide receiver became the first player in NFL history with more than 1,000 yards receiving and returning in a season, five catches and at least 50 yards receiving in every game in a season, and six 100-catch seasons in a row. This year he set another record—but becoming the first NFL player to file nine grievances and appeals in a season isn’t going to get him any closer to the Hall of Fame. Brown’s fumble of a year started in March, when he was traded to the Oakland Raiders. Over the summer, he missed two weeks’ worth of training camp practice, first after he got frostbite from failing to wear proper footwear during a cryotherapy session and then after refusing to wear a league-certified helmet. By September 4 he had racked up two additional absences and disciplinary fines of $53,950. Known to be as hotheaded as he is quick-footed, he got into a verbal brawl with Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock over the fines, only to be levied an additional $215,000, a sum that voided the $29 million guarantee in his contract. Some 48 hours later he took to Instagram demanding that the Raiders release him. They did, but he wasn’t benched for long—before the end of the day, he’d signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots. After three days of peace and quiet, he made news once more when Britney Taylor, one of his former trainers, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida alleging that he had sexually assaulted and raped her on three occasions in 2017 and 2018. On September 20, after a second allegation of sexual assault, the Patriots released him. Brown has denied both allegations—even going so far as to countersue Taylor—but hasn’t done much else to help himself, going on two Twitter tirades against the NFL, one of which was laced with profanities and has since been deleted. He is not expected to play again this season, not even for Robert Kraft, to whom he issued an apology—on Twitter.
A surefire sign of any business’ market dominance is when its name becomes a verb. Shortly after Kevin Burns joined Juul as CEO in 2017, “juuling” became part of the American lexicon—or at least that of the nation’s teenagers. Billed as a safer alternative to cigarettes for adult smokers, Juul ran vibrant marketing campaigns featuring crop-top-clad models accessorized with sleek devices, fruit-flavored puffs pouring from pursed lips. They proved much more appealing to teens than to their parents, and by September 2018, about 20% of high school students were vaping. Burns’ e-cig giant commanded 73% of the market, leading the FDA to issue a warning letter requesting that Juul revise its marketing practices to address the “epidemic rate of increase in youth use.” After months of reports of vaping-related illnesses and deaths, not to mention several state investigations into and lawsuits against the business, on August 29 the Wall Street Journal reported that the FTC had launched an investigation into whether Juul used social-media influencers and other marketing tactics to target minors. Less than two weeks later, the FDA issued another warning letter, this time for violating regulations by marketing its products as a safer alternative to smoking. But not until September 23, when a report in the Wall Street Journal revealed that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California was conducting a criminal investigation into Juul, did Burns’ career go up in smoke. Within 48 hours, the CEO had stepped down and his company had ceased all advertising in the U.S. On November 18 and 19, the attorneys general in California and New York, respectively, filed lawsuits alleging that Juul intentionally marketed to minors and created a “public health crisis” in the process. A few weeks later, the attorney general in Illinois followed suit. The company has maintained that it never marketed to anyone underage and has developed an action plan to prevent youth vaping. In a recent statement, a spokesperson for Juul wrote: “We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials and other stakeholders.”
Patrick Byrne has never been a stranger to controversy. Not since 1999, when he founded Overstock.com to cash in on dot-com casualties, flipping the inventories they left behind. Three years later he took the company public, and by 2005, amid slipping shares, he earned a reputation for something that had nothing to do with retail: During a now-infamous conference call, he went off the rails, ranting in a paranoid manner about a character called “Sith Lord,” who he believed had orchestrated a scheme to distort the company’s stock price. But that conspiracy chatter would pale in comparison to the one that ended his tenure at the top. On August 22, Byrne abruptly resigned as CEO after disclosing his involvement as a federal informant in the investigation of Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy currently serving an 18-month sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy, having used gun-rights advocacy to infiltrate conservative circles and influence U.S. policy before and after the 2016 presidential election. By September 18, Byrne had sold his nearly 5 million shares in Overstock.com. In an open letter, he wrote that he had unloaded the shares out of fear of retaliation by the “Deep State” and would be investing the proceeds in gold, silver and cryptocurrencies. Prior to his departure, he had spent five years plowing hundreds of millions into blockchain ventures with little to no result. On October 7, Overstock.com received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to sales of shares and a blockchain-based dividend, and on November 12 its shares hit a seven-year low.
He was an opera legend, but Plácido Domingo may have taken his final bow on any American stage. On August 13, the Associated Press published a report detailing allegations of sexual harassment from nine women who had worked alongside the Spanish tenor. Four weeks later, the outlet published a second report with allegations from 11 additional women. Despite having denied all of the accusations, some of which date back as many as three decades, on September 24 the 78-year-old withdrew from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Macbeth and all future performances. One week later, he resigned as the Los Angeles Opera’s general director, a role he had held for 16 years at a company he had helped found. Several other American arts organizations have canceled concerts with the disgraced star, among them the Dallas Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera, and Domingo has removed himself from the lineup of performances at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, though his European calendar remains as full as ever.
At first glance, the ouster of Steve Easterbrook may seem a bit excessive: The McDonald’s CEO, a divorcé, had had a consensual relationship with an employee. Why was that enough for the board of directors to launch an investigation and then vote to sack him on November 1? Because the relationship, no matter how consensual, was in direct violation of a corporate policy that prohibits supervisors from having relationships with subordinates. Once upon a time, the board might have turned a blind eye to such an abuse of power, but not in the age of #MeToo, when no one, not even Easterbrook, credited by many as having saved a stumbling McDonald’s, gets a pass. The fast-food giant has made headlines for sexual misconduct more than a few times in recent memory: In September 2018 hundreds of workers staged a walkout to protest a culture of sexual harassment, and in May the ACLU, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and Fight for $15 filed 25 sexual harassment complaints with the EEOC on behalf of McDonald’s employees. In August the company unveiled a new sexual harassment training program for its U.S. workforce, but less than two weeks after Easterbrook’s exit, the ACLU filed another sexual harassment suit on behalf of a former employee. In response, McDonald’s restated its commitment to creating safe workspaces. The restaurant industry is known for having high rates of misconduct, with 40% of female workers saying they’ve experienced sexual harassment on the job. As for Easterbrook, a spokeswoman for the fallen chief executive says he “acknowledges his error in judgment and supports the company’s decision.”
In the first season of Desperate Housewives, Felicity Huffman’s character, Lynette Scavo, pays $15,000 to get her twins into an elite private school. Fifteen years later, her life would imitate her art. On March 12, the actress was one of 50 people charged by Boston federal prosecutors in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice. The next day, she pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy, admitting to paying $15,000, the same sum as Scavo, to boost her daughter’s SAT scores to get her into an elite university. Four months later, she became the first parent to receive a sentence—14 days in prison, one year of supervised probation, 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine—and on October 15 she reported to a federal prison in northern California, where she served 11 days. Huffman, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of Scavo in Desperate Housewives, likely would have been submitted for award consideration for her role in When They See Us if not for her involvement in “Operation Varsity Blues.” Whether or not she’ll grace the small screen once more, only time will tell: Her most recent films, Otherhood and Tammy’s Always Dying, were both shot last year, and the release of the former has been delayed due to the scandal.
In the 1990s, R. Kelly made a name for himself as one of the most successful R&B artists of his generation—he also made a name for himself as a predator. Since 1994, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Kelly, then 27, had married his protégée, Aaliyah, then 15, a claim that both parties have disputed, the three-time Grammy-winning singer has faced numerous accusations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. For decades he skirted scandal unscathed, even walking away from a 2002 indictment on 21 counts of child pornography with his career intact (the charges were all later dismissed), but that all changed on January 4, when the premiere of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly placed his misconduct under an inescapable spotlight. The six-part docuseries, which featured interviews with 50 activists, artists and accusers, among others, captivated the country, and within two weeks RCA Records dropped Kelly from its label, while artists including Celine Dion, Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga pulled their collaborations with him from the streaming services. On February 22, he was charged in Chicago with ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, and after pleading not guilty and making bail, he ended up back in jail on March 6 for failing to pay child support. That evening, in a prerecorded sit-down interview with CBS This Morning host Gayle King he showed himself to be unhinged, springing from his seat, screaming into the cameras, “I didn’t do this stuff! This is not me!” Between May and August, prosecutors in Illinois, New York and Minnesota charged him with 31 crimes, involving allegations of sexual abuse, child pornography, kidnapping, prostitution and obstruction of justice. Kelly, who has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him, was scheduled to appear in federal court in October but missed his hearing due to a toenail infection. Since then, federal prosecutors in New York have charged him with bribing a government official to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah so the two could marry. Kelly has responded by allowing a lawyer of his to say, “my client had absolutely no involvement with this, if it ever even happened at all.” His next court date is scheduled for February 2020.
When Boston federal prosecutors charged 50 people in connection with “Operation Varsity Blues” on March 12, Felicity Huffman wasn’t the only celebrity whose career came crashing down. In fact, she wasn’t even the only actress whose work foreshadowed the scandal yet to come: In season six of Full House, Aunt Becky, portrayed by Lori Loughlin, finds herself at a moral crossroads when Uncle Jesse lies to get the couple’s twins into an exclusive preschool. Within 20 or so minutes she comes clean, realizing that honesty is the best policy—but 26 years later, it would appear that lesson might have been lost on the actress. Four weeks after she was hit with the Boston charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, on April 9 both Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were charged with conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering, for allegedly paying $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California as crew recruits, although neither had ever rowed. Six months later, the two were indicted on another count of bribery. Loughlin and her husband have pleaded not guilty to all the charges, but maintaining their innocence hasn’t helped her career: Netflix has written Aunt Becky out of the final season of Fuller House, and the Hallmark Channel has put When Calls the Heart on hiatus while it edits her character out. Her other Hallmark series, Garage Sale Mystery, has been canceled altogether. Loughlin’s next court date is scheduled for January 2020.
It has been said that the bigger you are, the harder you fall, and in 2019 there was no better example of that than Adam Neumann. Known for his eccentricity, energy and penchant for persuasion—which he famously made the most of in a 12-minute pitch to SoftBank that secured WeWork $4.4 billion in funding—the Israeli businessman ushered in the new year on top of the world: WeWork had raised yet another round with SoftBank, bringing its total funding to $15.64 billion at a $47 billion valuation and propelling Neumann’s fortune to $4.1 billion. All was well until August 14, when WeWork filed for an IPO, a move that would mark the beginning of big troubles for both the business and its charismatic chief executive. The coworking company’s S-1 filing revealed billions in losses dating back to 2016 and millions in loans to the executive team, and although Neumann had forfeited his 2018 salary ahead of the IPO, he was still making a pretty penny: Not only did he own several of the buildings being leased by WeWork, but he had trademarked and sold to his own company the rights to the word “We” for $5.9 million. Within hours, the Wall Street Journal reported that he had cashed out $700 million in WeWork stock options, and the next day Morgan Stanley backed out of the IPO. By September 5 the business was reportedly considering cutting its share price by 57%, but that never came to fruition. Four days later, SoftBank asked WeWork to put the IPO on hold. Within a week the company had updated its S-1 filing, reducing Neumann’s voting power and the amount of stock he could sell after the IPO. But he had yet to hit rock-bottom: On September 18, the Wall Street Journal published a profile of him as a larger-than-life CEO who had both directed staff to fire 20% of employees annually as a cost-cutting measure and splurged on cases of Don Julio 1942 tequila to fuel his partying habit. Neumann resigned from the business he built on September 24. One month later, SoftBank agreed to take control of company, leaving its embattled cofounder with a 10% stake and a $1.7 billion golden parachute to fall back on.
Carlos Ghosn made our list of career crashes in 2018 after an internal investigation at Nissan alleging misconduct including misstating his salary and misusing corporate assets led to his arrest and ouster from his chairmanship at Nissan, Mitsubishi and later Renault. Less than one year later, his successor faced a similar fate. On September 9, Hiroto Saikawa announced that he too would be stepping down from the helm of scandal-ridden Nissan following an internal investigation that alleged that he and other executives had been overpaid through a stock appreciation rights scheme that boosted his compensation by about $440,000 after taxes in 2013, a claim he’s confirmed. Even before his resignation, plans to reduce the Japanese automaker’s workforce by 9% and production by 10% amid plummeting profits had put the chief executive’s leadership in question.
After 25 years at Warner Bros., including six spent green-lighting blockbusters such as Aquaman, Crazy Rich Asians and the Fantastic Beasts franchise from the C-suite, CEO Kevin Tsujihara was swept out from behind the scenes on March 6 when hundreds of leaked text messages obtained by the Hollywood Reporter placed him at the center of a sex scandal. The messages, exchanged between Tsujihara, actress Charlotte Kirk, media mogul James Packer and director Brett Ratner as far back as 2013, reveal how the executive arranged auditions for the 21-year-old starlet in exchange for sex. Within hours of their release, WarnerMedia launched an investigation into the matter, and by March 18 he was out. In a memo to employees, he explained his exit, nodding to his “past actions” rather than defending himself against the allegations. An attorney for Tsujihara has said that he “did not have a direct role in [Kirk] being cast in any movie,” including Oceans 8 and How To Be Single. She has maintained that he never acted inappropriately or promised her roles.
When Geisha Williams’ career combusted in January 2019, PG&E didn’t just lose its leader—corporate America lost its only Latina chief executive. After just 22 months in the corner office, Williams stepped down on January 13 as the California power company faced approximately $30 billion in potential liabilities related to its roles in at least 17 major wildfires since 2017. In mid-March the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded that outdated PG&E power lines had sparked the state’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives and some 19,000 homes and buildings. To many, Williams’ departure seemed sudden, but not to California Senator Jerry Hill, who described her resignation as “late in coming,” or to Utility Reform Network Executive Director Mark Toney, who called it “a very good sign that housecleaning has started.” Two weeks later, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the Northern District of California, but not before sending Williams off with a parting gift: $2.5 million in severance, on top of the $9.3 million she had banked in 2018, an 8.1% raise despite having lost $6.9 million on revenue of $16.8 million.