The Backstory: Susan Antilla

Susan Antilla takes a deep-dive into how Wall Street avoids accountability after a wave of women brought harassment lawsuits two decades ago.

In her latest investigation, award-winning journalist Susan Antilla takes a deep-dive into how Wall Street avoids accountability after a wave of women brought harassment lawsuits two decades ago. In a launch episode of Retro Report on PBS airing today and an upcoming story published in partnership with The Intercept, Antilla investigates why so many harassment cases remain under wraps.

Type Investigations Backstories sat down with Antilla to talk about the reporting process and what it was like to revisit and update such a complex story.

Beckler: Obviously these questions about the future of the #MeToo era are an important part of why your story is so relevant right now, but how do you see your reporting relating to #MeToo?

Antilla: Well you know, if you don’t look at history you can miss things, right? There was so much euphoria about #MeToo and I think a lot of that is really justified. There should be some euphoria about #MeToo, but I felt like the reporting that I had done twenty-some years ago was a lot like what’s going on now only it was confined to one industry and it didn’t turn out so well.

I mean, in the mid 1990s, late 1990s, there was so much excitement. Wall Street was going to change. Companies were making all the right noise about how they were going to hire women, how they weren’t going to allow harassment, reforms and different projects and rewards they gave to companies in finance if they did a good job supposedly. So, people were starting to take the bait that something good was going to happen and it didn’t. So, I would say, I saw all the euphoria back then and I saw that it didn’t work out the way that everybody promised it would and it just resonated with me when I was watching the excitement over #MeToo. And I want to be careful not to denigrate what’s happening because what’s happening is good, but I think that the public should not and employees should not, underestimate the ability of companies to make lots of good noise when the heat is on and then very quietly disassemble it when nobody’s watching anymore. So that’s really what made me want to look at this.

Beckler: Sure. Absolutely, it’s very important. Kind of going off that, between FINRA and internal arbitration and many other factors, this field strikes me as a kind of information black hole.

Antilla: Yes.

Beckler: So how do you go about navigating that reporting?

Antilla: After looking at these things over a number of years, I’ve figured out a few, I don’t know if they’re tricks, but I’ve figured out some things.

One thing is that a lot of times a woman will first file in court and then the brokerage firm shoos her back into arbitration. They go back to the court and they say to the judge, you know, she signed this thing and she has to go to arbitration, and then the judge throws it out and there’s nothing new on the docket. However, usually it’s on the docket and I will frequently, when I see a case of FINRA arbitration, I will just go right into PACER and I will check to see was there ever an initial filing and you know sometimes I get lucky.

The other thing, on the other hand of this, on the other end of this, which  is amazing, is after all of this insistence by firms that women arbitrate, if women win, they [the companies] very frequently appeal the arbitration win and they want to go back to court now. You know? So, if they lose, court is good. So, when they do that it’s very risky because they have to put some stuff in the record, in the public record. And part of this story that we’ve been working on has to do with a case against A.G. Edwards, a firm that was acquired by Wells Fargo, and the woman that was forced into arbitration and she won, and they appealed it. That was a big mistake because all of the records ended up in a court docket. It was like a treasure trove. I mean, I had the closing arguments from both lawyers. So it’s a two-edge sword when they decide to challenge the system that they say is perfect.

So, I get information that way and I know a lot of people, a lot of lawyers who represent women and men in these cases. A lot of them trust me and they’ll give me documents and once I have their document, I go to the other side and say, ‘well gee, I’ve got this.’ So, of course they want me to see the answer. The brokerage firm that was accused they want me to see the other side of it. So its like I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s like a mosaic and you start to see the real picture.

Beckler: To me and I think a lot of the readers, the most poignant moments are when you hear the voices of the women themselves. So how did you go about contacting and cultivating those sources?

Antilla: Some of them I’ve known for a long time and some of them are brand new. the woman who is the lead of this story, Stacy Pessari, she just called me one day and she said, ‘I’ve just won a lawsuit!” and I said, “you did?” She said, “Yes, against a financial firm.” And I said, “Really.” and I was literally just at my desk writing a new afterword to my book that was coming out in paperback and I was writing a new afterword. And I said to her, you’re the first one and she said, “What are you talking about?”

Well securities regulations had just changed. It used to be that if you were a broker and you sued your firm, you had to go to arbitration. However, the regulations had changed in 1999 to say that if you had a complaint, a Title Seven complaint, that you could go to court. Pretty soon after that happened all of the firms just changed their policies internally, so it ended up being moot. However, this woman worked for Pacific Life Insurance and Pacific Life Insurance just was sort of slow to the party as we put it in the story and they had not changed their policy to say that you had to use arbitration and this woman Stacy Pessari was able to sue them. She had just won a two and half million dollar reward and I said, “well Stacy, I’m not I can’t write about this in a column because I’m not writing my column right now, but I’m going to put you in the afterword of my book. Tell me all about this.” And it was fascinating. I was able to get all the documents of her case and she had a really pretty awful story. So that’s someone I’ve known for a long, long time. And the women who brought the suits against Smith Barney in 1996 and Merrill Lynch in 1997 I’ve known them for a long time and I stay in touch with them.

More recently when you see a lawsuit or you see an arbitration which is rare, but, you know, I just pick up the phone and I call their lawyers. A lot of the time I know their lawyers already, so that helps me get in the door. But sometimes the door just slams. I mean there are women in this story who I’ve sent them overnight mail, I’ve called them, I’ve emailed them, and they just clearly don’t want to talk. And you know what? I don’t blame some of them.

Beckler: Did any of your sources put themselves in further risk to be talking to you? And if so, how do you navigate that kind of risk for them?

Antilla: That’s a really good question. The woman who’s the main person in the story, Staci Pesari, she had a lot of reservations. I mean on the one hand she sought me out all those years ago so she clearly wanted to talk. On the other hand, she’s still really afraid of the man who harassed her. So, there had to be ground rules. I flew out to meet her. I’m not going to tell you where because she doesn’t want anyone to know where she lives, and the first thing she said when we sat down in a restaurant was you cannot say where I am. I mean this is years later. This woman was harassed in 2001 and she still has a little bit of that ‘looking over your shoulder’ thing. I don’t mean literally; I mean figuratively. And how many years is that? She suffered from PTSD. She really had to take a few years just to decompress from, not just from what he had done to her, but from the process of litigation that is really stressful. So I honored her request. Nobody is going to know where she lives. But she was courageous enough to let me use her name and she opened up to me about everything that had happened to her.

Beckler: The last question then is Tales From the Boom-Boom Room I believe was published in 2002, correct?

Antilla: Yep.

Beckler: So, how did you go about updating that reporting and were there any different challenges that you faced reporting this story this time?

Antilla: I actually think in some ways it was easier for me this time around. I mean this was a challenging story, but at this point I know so many of the players and it’s a little easier for me to spot the BS when I see it. Which you know, a young reporter couldn’t do that. Well, a really good young reporter could I guess, but I mean it’s just a little easier for me because I’ve seen so much of this. And also, the Wall street firms know. There was a time when I was writing the story of the boom-boom room case being filed, I remember the PR person saying to me, “this is just an isolated incident in one little branch in Long Island. This doesn’t happen anywhere else.” It was the most un-isolated incident anywhere. Now when she said that to me, I really didn’t know. It didn’t seem isolated to me at the time, but I wasn’t sure of how extensive it might be. And as soon as the publicity came out about that case, the lead plaintiff, Pamela Martins, she was getting calls from all over the country from Smith Barney these women telling her the same thing was happening to them. I mean that was the #MeToo, right? I mean the power of somebody saying oh my god that’s exactly what’s happening to me! you know? and there was a chapter in my book I think I called it ‘That Was Happening to You Too.’

So now, nobody would say to me it’s an isolated incident. They wouldn’t try that with me. I can cut through that stuff pretty quickly with brokerage firms. I mean it was funny in this story I went back, I think we had 55 entities we had to get comment on from people and corporations, and an unusual number of corporations would get back to me, brokerage firms, and say, “I don’t have anything to add.” Which is a nice careful thing because it’s not quite a ‘no comment’ right? But [they’d say,] “did you see this document, I thought this would be a useful document” and I would always have the document already, but that wasn’t the point. They weren’t going to insult me, but they just wanted to be sure that one little thing that would help them would be in there. So yeah, in some ways its harder and in some ways its easier.

But a really hard thing about this is how comprehensive it was. We just looked at so many cases over so many years and tracking the people down—I mean we just couldn’t find some of them.

The key thing, the reason it is a story, is that most of the women, if they didn’t lose their careers entirely on Wall Street, their careers were like, really stopped for a while. They would be a broker, they’d get fired, someone would take all their clients, and they’d have to go build those clients up. Those are sales jobs, right? So you have relationships with people and if someone steals all those people away from you that you’ve worked five or ten years or more, you’re starting all over again. You’ve got lost earnings for a number of years. Many of these women did get back to where they were, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t lose a lot of money. There’s a real financial hit that people take. That’s a really big deal.

And I think there’s a really big focus on—which is really important—let’s expose these people. Yes. Let’s try to get some kind of award for these people. Yes. But I don’t think that even in the biggest awards I’ve seen that women have necessarily been compensated for what they really lost.

And then there is another cost. The emotional cost which is extreme. And impact on families. I had a lot of conversations about children and how it impacted them and some kids understanding what’s going on, and other kids like, Mom, you’re going crazy, you know? But I’ll tell you a really great story. There’s a woman who is in the story, her name is Susan Jaskowski Mendelsohn and she’s somebody I knew from the 1990s. She sued a company called Rodman and Renshaw and I spoke to her and I said, “what about your kids? Do they feel like you sort of took time and you know, not love away from them, but attention that you should have been giving them when you were going through this trauma?” Because she said she was a mess too for a number of years after this lawsuit and she said, you know, Susan, both of my kids went to the same school and I forget which grade this was but it was civics class everybody had to come in and like present something. [They had to] present something about what they were talking about, the constitution or something. And she said her daughter, and she didn’t even know her daughter was going to do this, she went into this class, with my book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room and told the story of how her mother had challenged this firm and how proud she was. And she said a couple of years later, her son was in the same class and did the same thing. It gives me goose bumps telling you that. She said it just meant so much to her that her kids understood what she went through. And you know what great kids they’re going to be. I mean, the children of some of these women are pretty militant and that’s a good thing for all of us, right?

Beckler: Absolutely. Well Susan thank you so much for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.

Antilla: My pleasure. Thank you.

About the reporter

Susan Antilla

Susan Antilla

Susan Antilla is an award-winning investigative journalist, columnist, and author writing about business and finance.