LOS ANGELES – Kevin Clash, the voice behind the iconic kids’ character Elmo, resigned last week amid allegations from two men saying they had sexual relationships with him when they were minors.
While Sesame Workshop accepted Clash’s resignation saying “the controversy surrounding Kevin's personal life has become a distraction that none of us want,” the fact that the initial accuser’s allegations were first brought to the network’s attention way back in June has prompted some to question whether appropriate action was taken in a timely fashion.
“When working around children, my feeling would be to always exercise on the side of caution and protect the children first and foremost,” a source close to the scandal told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column, adding that letting Clash keep working during the network’s internal investigation was “below the standard.”
Sesame Workshop issued a statement on November 12 confirming that they had first received communications from Sheldon Stephens, then 23, in June saying he and Clash, 52, had had sex when Stephens was 16, below the age of consent in New York, where the relations had allegedly taken place.
“We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action. We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communication with him,” Sesame Workshop said in the statement. “We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated. Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding our Internet usage and he was disciplined.”
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But how thorough was the investigation? Jeffrey Herman, a lawyer for Clash’s second accuser Cecil Singleton – who filed a $5 million lawsuit against the puppeteer, claiming they had sexual relations when he was 15 – told FOX411 he has since been contacted by two other men claiming to have had underage sexual relations with Clash.
Raising even more questions is Stephens’ shifting story. After the news of his relationship with Clash came out, he quickly he recanted his allegations of underage sex with Clash. Sesame Workshop then released a statement, declaring that “we are pleased that this matter has been brought to a close, and we are happy that Kevin can move on from this unfortunate episode.” But then Stephens reportedly did a second about-face, saying he was pressured into making a public retraction after being offered a reported $125,000.
A Sesame Workshop rep did not respond to a request for comment. However, a company insider told us that the organization was only made aware of one alleged relationship with a minor, and that the internal investigation took place during the summer before production began again in September. The source said Clash was not put on formal leave during the internal investigation. This is an issue that many find particularly perplexing given that his job is in children’s education.
“There is no question that as soon as there was serious, documented allegations Kevin Clash should have been removed from working around children,” said crisis management expert and CEO of 5WPR, Ronn Torossian. “That said, lawyers could have advised that Clash may have had a claim against ‘Sesame Street’ if the allegations were false.”
Stuart Slotnick, a partner with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney P.C., said that although Sesame Workshop conducted their own investigation and found the claims to be unsubstantiated, the question of why they chose not to suspend Clash upon receipt of the initial claim is significant.
“This may be more of a crisis PR issue for ‘Sesame Street’ than a legal issue,” Slotnick said. “First, the relationships have taken place years ago, and it is not as if now the allegations are that ‘Sesame Street’ knew this was happening, and that they knew they had an employee that was a predator, and did nothing about the situation.”
And while many critics are concerned that Clash was allowed to continue working in children’s education despite his company’s knowledge of at least one complaint, New York-based attorney John Lynch stressed that this scenario called for the balancing of several interests, including the rights of the employee, potential harm to others, and protection of the brand’s reputation.
“It would be imprudent to take disciplinary action against the employee based on an accusation alone,” he explained. “Here the accusation was from the past, and did not involve any work-related activity, so ‘Sesame Street’ had the luxury of being able to investigate before taking disciplinary action.”
The $5 million federal lawsuit filed last week by the second accuser, Cecil Singleton, alleges that the plaintiff met Clash via a gay phone chat line when he was just 15 years old. Singleton’s lawyer said that on the initial chat Singleton told the famous puppeteer that he was 18 years of age, but during a proceeding dinner date admitted to being only 15.
According to the lawsuit, Clash “coerced or enticed Cecil Singleton to meet him for sexual encounters,” and that the puppeteer frequented this chat room “with the intent of persuading, inducing, coercing or enticing underage boys to meet him.”
The day before filing, Singleton wrote on his Facebook page: “I just allowed 1 fool to compel me into making 1 huge, stupid ass mistake. All I can do now is try to be efficient, and give the rest to god. Please 4give my overwhelming stupidity.”
Singleton’s attorneys have demanded a jury trial – which may shed even more light on Sesame Workshop’s initial investigation, and the nature of their disciplining him for improper Internet usage. A company rep would not elaborate on the nature of the usage for which Clash was disciplined.
Clash’s rep did not respond to a request for further comment. Clash and Stephens could not be reached directly for further comment.
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Danielle Jones-Wesley contributed to this report.