A former assistant producer for WTMX-FM’s popular “Eric in the Morning” show has sued host Eric Ferguson, alleging he abused his power as the radio station’s “anointed sacred cow” to coerce sexual favors early in her career, then blocked promotions as punishment after she refused to resume an “unwelcome sexual relationship.”
In a Cook County lawsuit filed in May, Cynthia DeNicolo contends the Radio Hall of Famer orchestrated her dismissal nearly 16 years after she stopped providing oral sex about twice a month in response to Ferguson’s demands, for which he allegedly used the code words “I need a backrub.”
DeNicolo alleged in the lawsuit that Ferguson taunted her with the phrase throughout her tenure at the station, which ended in May 2020. He also berated her in front of other workers and demanded personal favors, such as pressuring her to babysit his children for a decade beginning in 2003, leading her to be known around The Mix as “Eric’s babysitter,” the suit said.
The complaint accuses Ferguson of intentional infliction of emotional distress and alleges he “intended that DeNicolo suffer low wages and stalled career advancement as her punishment for refusing to succumb to his demands to resume the unwelcome sexual relationship she terminated in 2004.”
DeNicolo, 43, did not report him to the station for fear she would “lose her job, be publicly shamed, and humiliated out of the radio industry or otherwise driven out of radio by a vindictive Eric Ferguson,” according to her lawsuit.
Efforts to reach Ferguson, who is named as David Eric Ferguson in the suit, were unsuccessful Monday morning. Ferguson’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last month, alleging it “appears to be intended to smear defendant’s reputation.”
The filing called DeNicolo’s suit “completely devoid of factual allegations” and said Ferguson “emphatically denies the existence of a sexual relationship with plaintiff as well as engaging in the other conduct alleged in the complaint.”
The motion to dismiss is pending. A status date is set for Oct. 5.
Ferguson, 54, was on the air Monday and has continued to host his morning show throughout the litigation. DeNicolo’s attorney, Carmen Caruso, declined to comment on the complaint or make DeNicolo available for an interview.
The company that has owned the adult contemporary station at 101.9-FM since 2011, Hubbard Radio Chicago, is not a defendant in the lawsuit. In a statement Monday, Hubbard said it “took steps immediately” after learning of DeNicolo’s allegations about Ferguson.
“We take concerns about our workplace culture and the experience of our employees very seriously, and with the full support of Hubbard Radio Chicago and Hubbard Broadcasting we took steps immediately to investigate,” said the statement, sent by Jeff England, vice president and market manager for Hubbard Chicago. “An internal investigation and an independent external investigation found no evidence to corroborate allegations of illegal workplace conduct.”
The suit comes after years of shakeups at Ferguson’s morning show. Kathy Hart, the longtime co-host of the “Eric & Kathy” morning show on The Mix, departed in 2017 without explanation. Another co-host, Melissa McGurren, left in December 2020 without disclosing a reason.
In her complaint, DeNicolo alleged Ferguson told her in 2017 that he feared another female employee was preparing to make sexual harassment allegations against him.
Ferguson allegedly told DeNicolo “we need to circle the wagons” and “get our stories straight,” and advised her to “stay silent and to deny any allegations by other women that Ferguson had engaged in inappropriate behavior,” according to the lawsuit.
A search of court records did not reveal any other suits involving Ferguson.
According to DeNicolo’s lawsuit, Hubbard knew by 2019 that Ferguson was a “serial sexual predator” but decided to protect him because of his show’s popularity.
“The employer’s decision to try to keep secret Ferguson’s serial misconduct emboldened Ferguson, who by then appeared to believe he was invincible,” the suit said.
Ferguson’s show rated ninth among morning shows in a recent Chicago radio audience survey by Nielsen Audio.
DeNicolo was laid off as part of companywide cuts described as a “response to the challenges presented by COVID-19.” Hubbard said it dismissed a dozen employees across its stations, which also include WDRV-FM 97.1 and adult contemporary WSHE-FM 100.3.
A Hubbard representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
DeNicolo said the station hired her and assigned her to the morning show in 2000, after she had interned there in college. According to the lawsuit, DeNicolo said her job as assistant producer involved screening listener calls, booking interviews and occasionally joining the show on air. She maintained the same position throughout her 20-year career at The Mix.
The lawsuit described Ferguson as the station’s “anointed sacred cow.” He was allowed to choose staff for his show — including requiring employees to take a personality test — and he influenced, if not controlled, DeNicolo’s salary, bonus, ability to advance at The Mix and opportunity for special assignments and appearances, the lawsuit said.
The suit alleges Ferguson flirted with DeNicolo “almost immediately” after she joined the station. She said in the suit that he attempted to kiss her, and she brushed him off, after a company event around December 2003 when he insisted on driving her home.
“Following this ‘attempted kiss’ Ferguson made it clear he would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He began telling DeNicolo she was replaceable and had to ‘pay her dues,’” according to the lawsuit.
Ferguson “coerced” her into performing oral sex about twice a month from January until August 2004, typically after a company event or after work in her apartment, DeNicolo said in her lawsuit. Ferguson “used code words to communicate his unwelcome demands for oral sex,” telling DeNicolo he “needed a backrub,” the suit alleged.
“There was no romance, affection, or dignity associated with Ferguson’s demands for oral sex,” the lawsuit said. “Ferguson’s demands for oral sex were abusive power plays by the man that had all the power over DeNicolo’s career.”
DeNicolo said in the complaint that she “summoned the courage” to end the sexual relationship in August 2004 at a radio industry conference in Florida. The complaint states she ran out of his hotel room in tears after he became angry.
After that, the suit says, Ferguson continued “to torment DeNicolo by continuing to ask for sexual favors and constantly reminding her (in open and notorious ways) that he held the power over job and would use that power to humiliate her and/or to reinstate his demands for oral sex.”
The lawsuit alleges Ferguson “blocked DeNicolo’s career advancement” and in May 2020 “caused their mutual employer to terminate DeNicolo using COVID-19 as a pretext.” DeNicolo alleges she suffered extreme humiliation, substantial distress, hair loss, migraines, anxiety, weight gain, sleep loss and nightmares.
Ferguson’s attorneys declined to comment for this story. ”As stated in our motion to dismiss, Eric emphatically denies the existence of a sexual relationship with Plaintiff Cynthia DeNicolo and the other allegations of wrongdoing in her complaint,” attorney Peter Donati said in an emailed response to the Tribune on Monday. “We have no further comment on the litigation at this time.”
Besides raising various legal challenges, including one based on the statute of limitations, Ferguson’s legal team argued DeNicolo cannot sue him because she signed a separation agreement that includes a clause barring her from any future claim against Hubbard management “in return for a substantial severance package.”
His lawyers said DeNicolo filed suit after receiving her final severance payment. Donati and attorney Jamie Burns argued in the motion to dismiss that the general release from future litigation includes Ferguson.
The motion contends DeNicolo “cannot claim that defendant was all powerful over her career and advancement and was therefore able to coerce her into an alleged sexual relationship, while at the same time taking the position that he was not ‘management’ of Hubbard or otherwise within the scope of the general release.”
DeNicolo’s attorney, Caruso, responded to the motion to dismiss this month, noting that Ferguson is not named in the separation agreement and that although Hubbard management “might be overly deferential to Ferguson, allowing him to influence decisions,” the on-air personality is not part of management.
According to DuPage County court records, Ferguson’s wife filed paperwork to end their 20-year marriage in August 2019, citing irreconcilable differences. A judge granted the divorce about eight months later.
One month after DeNicolo contends she ended the sexual relationship with Ferguson, the two were quoted in a September 2004 story in the Tribune’s former RedEye edition about “real-life office underlings” in high-profile jobs, a nod to the then-new television show “The Apprentice.”
DeNicolo, who was unmarried at the time and went by her maiden name, Skolak, described waking up at 3:15 a.m. and riding her bike to the Loop so she would make it to work by 4:30 a.m. to make coffee and get ahead of the day’s news.
The article described Ferguson as one of the 26-year-old’s mentors. “There are a lot of dues to pay in radio,” Ferguson was quoted as saying. “She recognizes the prices she has to pay to be successful in radio. She’s willing to make sacrifices where others aren’t.”
She told the Tribune that despite her early-morning coffee duties, her colleagues at The Mix respected her. “Nobody asks me to get their dry cleaning or wash their cars or anything,” she stated in the article.