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Abercrombie & Fitch facilitated ex-CEO’s sexual exploitation of men, lawsuit claims

<i>Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images</i><br/>Abercrombie & Fitch signage is seen on a store on Fifth Avenue on August 25
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Abercrombie & Fitch signage is seen on a store on Fifth Avenue on August 25

By Eva Rothenberg, CNN

New York (CNN) — Dozens of men have filed a class action lawsuit alleging Abercrombie & Fitch was complicit in a decade-long sex trafficking scheme carried out by the fashion company’s former CEO.

According to the complaint filed Friday in federal court in New York, Michael Jeffries, who ran the company between 1992 and 2014, “used his role as CEO of Abercrombie to prey upon attractive young men who believed that Jeffries was going to hire them as an Abercrombie model.”

Abercrombie & Fitch told CNN it does not comment on pending litigation.

The complaint alleges Jeffries ran an expansive sex-trafficking operation, coercing and forcing young men to engage in sexual acts in exchange for money and promises of employment.

The lawsuit states that, in a series of instances, one aspiring model was invited to multiple Abercrombie & Fitch casting events in New York, France and London, and was sexually assaulted at least seven times at these events. The model was allegedly led to believe that this process “was essential to become an Abercrombie model.”

The total number of victims is believed to exceed 100, the lawsuit states, and “we anticipate more men coming forward in light of (the) filing,” said attorney Brittany Henderson, a partner of the firm representing some of the plaintiffs.

“Sexual exploitation does not discriminate based on gender,” Henderson told CNN in a statement. “Men have been exploited in the modeling and fashion industries for decades. The #MeToo movement ignited a fire in our country that empowered survivors to come forward and be heard. This case is paramount to expanding the #MeToo movement across genders into the #WeToo movement, and eradicating sexual exploitation in the entire industry, starting with Abercrombie & Fitch.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a trial by jury, as well as punitive and compensatory damages.

“Mr. Jeffries will not comment in the press on this new lawsuit, as he has likewise chosen not to regarding litigation in the past. The courtroom is where we will deal with this matter,” Jeffries’ attorney Brian Bieber told CNN.

The complaint also names Jeffries’ long-time partner Matthew Smith as a defendant claiming that he sexually assaulted men alongside Jeffries. While Smith did not hold any official position at the company, he was still given access to non-public information such as sales reports and financial documents, according to the complaint, and allowed to hold “managerial authority.”

Bieber said that Smith does not yet have legal representation. CNN has not been able to determine whether he has retained a lawyer.

The 21-count lawsuit brings nine counts against Abercrombie & Fitch, alleging that the company was aware of Jeffries’ and Smith’s abuse and knowingly turned a blind eye to the “unfettered” amount of money that Jefferies withdrew from corporate-affiliated accounts in order to pay off victims.

“To put it plainly, Jeffries needed a corporation that knew he was engaging in illegal activity and did not care, which Jeffries had in Abercrombie,” the complaint states, adding that this negligence makes Abercrombie & Fitch liable for the physical injury and emotional distress experienced by the plaintiffs as a result of the alleged assault committed by Jeffries and Smith.

“Abercrombie financially benefited in that as a by-product of the sex-trafficking venture, (the company) was able to employ male models to further promote their brand image, while simultaneously keeping Jeffries happy and productive, allowing him to rebrand the company’s image and transform it into a billion-dollar industry leader,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after the BBC published allegations of eight men who said Jeffries and his partner Smith exploited them for sex. The men alleged they were recruited through a middleman who used a network of recruiters, and paid them $500 to $1,000 for every referral, according to the BBC report, which was the culmination of a two-year investigation.

Days after the BBC report, Abercrombie & Fitch said it had launched its own investigation into the allegations.

“The company’s current executive leadership team and board of directors were not aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Jeffries,” the retailer told CNN in a statement earlier this month. “For close to a decade, a new executive leadership team and refreshed board of directors have successfully transformed our brands and culture into the values-driven organization we are today. We have zero tolerance for abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind.”

CNN’s Parija Kavilanz contributed to this report

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