Citigroup Drops Ben Stein Speech After Complaint Jokes Disparaged Women

Citigroup Inc. (C) canceled a planned keynote speech by writer, actor and TV personality Ben Stein after getting a complaint that he told jokes disparaging women at a private-equity conference in Dallas earlier this year.

Stein, 66, had been contracted by Citigroup to appear as a speaker at the May 17 event the bank is hosting in New York for pension and endowment funds. According to the agenda, other scheduled speakers include hedge-fund manager John Paulson and Peter Orszag, the former White House budget director who’s now a vice chairman in Citigroup’s investment bank.

“We have decided to present the conference without Mr. Stein’s participation,” said Danielle Romero-Apsilos, a spokeswoman for the New York-based bank. Stein, in an interview, said his jokes were mischaracterized and that the company didn’t call him before canceling.

Citigroup, accused in a gender-discrimination suit last year of being an “outdated boys club,” canceled the speech yesterday to avoid being associated with any inappropriate remarks, a person with knowledge of the matter said. The decision was made after Orszag received an e-mail from a woman who attended the March 2 event in Dallas and complained that Stein was “offensive and irresponsible.”

The woman, Lynda Villarreal, 41, had learned that Stein was scheduled to speak at the Citigroup conference, and e-mailed Orszag to ask him to reconsider, she said in interviews. Men and women at the March conference had told her they were offended by his remarks, she said.

Ferris Bueller

Orszag, 42, who wasn’t one of the organizers, forwarded the e-mail to the sales executives in Citigroup’s trading division who were overseeing the event, the person with knowledge of the matter said, declining to be identified because the deliberations were private. Those executives decided within hours to cancel Stein’s appearance, and the decision was relayed to Villarreal, the person said.

Stein, a Yale University-educated lawyer and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon who played the droning high-school economics teacher in the 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” said in an interview that his jokes at the Dallas conference had been incorrectly retold.

“I’ve been in this speaking-gig business for a number of years, I’ve told these jokes before, and I have never gotten one syllable of complaint,” he said. “I don’t think any woman in the world would call me a misogynist. For this woman to say this is just fantasy.”

‘Deadpan Humor’

Stein’s agent, Marcia Hurwitz, said Citigroup had initially contracted with Stein through a speakers bureau and that his typical corporate fee is $45,000, plus first-class travel for two. In the event of cancellation, he still gets paid, she said.

Stein delivers “deadpan humor and serious insights on the economy and human nature in talks that leave people laughing and thinking,” according to the Washington Speakers Bureau website.

Citigroup’s Romero-Apsilos declined to comment on whether the bank had given Stein a chance to respond before canceling or whether he may still be paid.

“I am delighted that Citi has taken this action,” said Villarreal, a Dallas resident and vice president of business development at Trident Trust, which has offices in London, Atlanta and the Cayman Islands and provides accounting services to hedge funds and private-equity firms. “It shows their corporate leadership and respect for women in the financial industry as well as their clients.”

Mistress Joke

Citigroup has described the allegations in the October 2010 gender-discrimination suit, which was filed by six former and current employees, as “totally inaccurate or selectively incomplete.”

Villarreal’s e-mail to Orszag told of three jokes at the Dallas conference she said were disparaging to women. One joke was about a wealthy man, his wife and his mistress, she said.

Another involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.

Villarreal said the jokes she sent to Citigroup were versions found on the Internet based on her recollection of what Stein said.

Stein, who has written columns for Bloomberg News and appeared as a guest on Bloomberg Television, said in the interview that the joke targeted the man, not the woman, and that in his Dallas telling the woman didn’t remove clothing.

‘Cloddish, Dopey Guy’

“It’s usually a joke understood to be making fun of a kind of cloddish, dopey guy,” Stein said. “When I was finished with this speech, dozens of women in the room came up to me and wanted their pictures taken with me, wanted autographs from me. Dozens of them. I got fan mail from women who had been at the group saying how much they liked the speech.”

The jokes are not original, he said.

“Every one of those jokes are thoroughly vetted with my wife,” said Stein. According to his website, she is a former lawyer, and they live with six cats and three dogs in Beverly Hills, California. Stein’s father, Herb Stein, was a member and later chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

In August 2009, the New York Times dropped Ben Stein as a columnist for its Sunday business section because he was simultaneously working as a pitchman for a credit-monitoring company, according to an Associated Press report at the time.

‘Encouraging to Women’

Earlier in 2009, Stein withdrew as the University of Vermont’s commencement speaker over complaints about his critical views of evolution in favor of intelligent design, according to the AP. He discussed those views as host of the 2008 documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Stein said he is “very involved in helping women’s groups,” including ones supporting unwed mothers and wives and widows of people in the military.

“I didn’t think I had an enemy in the world, except for the people who didn’t like my movie about evolution,” Stein said. “I am super, super, super encouraging to women. I support an awful lot of women who are trying to make their way in the world.”

An agenda for the Citigroup conference agenda accessed on the bank’s website yesterday afternoon listed a keynote lunch with Stein, billing him as a “noted financial expert and economist” and a “popular film and TV star.” By early today, Citigroup had updated the agenda to remove him.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bradley Keoun in New York at Bkeoun@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Scheer at dscheer@bloomberg.net

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