Walt Disney Co.’s chief executive Michael Eisner on Wednesday was confronted with notes in which he called Michael Ovitz “dangerous” and “a caged animal” as he desperately tried to fire his one-time friend from the entertainment giant.
He also was pressed about an internal memo in which he called Ovitz a “psychopath” who repeatedly lied to other top executives at the company.
Eisner faced the tough round of questioning as he sparred with a lawyer representing shareholders suing Walt Disney’s directors over Ovitz’ $140 million pay-off after Eisner finally succeeded in booting him from the company.
“I don’t want to start off here in an argumentative way,” Eisner said in the first minutes of cross-examination by shareholders’ lawyer Steven Schulman.
But the questions and responses only turned more pointed. Along with confronting Eisner about his “caged animal” reference, Schulman raised doubts about a November 1996 Disney board meeting in which directors discussed firing Ovitz 14 months after he had been hired at Eisner’s urging.
Schulman, an attorney at Milberg, Weiss, represents shareholders who charge that Eisner and the board shirked their duty by hiring Ovitz, who founded Creative Artists Agency and at one time was known as “The Most Powerful Man in Hollywood,” but failed as president of Disney.
They claim Ovitz should later have been fired for cause — pointing to Eisner’s unflattering descriptions among other things — and want the $140 million plus interest returned to the company.
In two days of questioning by his own attorney, Eisner told Delaware’s Court of Chancery he kept the board updated on problems with Ovitz, including board discussions at a meeting on Nov. 25, 1996.
Schulman challenged Eisner’s recollection of that meeting, asking why there were no records or notes related to it.
At times the attorney even seemed to suggest that it never took place, referring to it as “the meeting you say occurred.”
“It did occur and I was part of it” Eisner said.