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March 1, 2004

A Sordid Tale of Harassment: Tales from the Boom-Boom Room

By Susan Antilla

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  • A Sordid Tale of Harassment: Tales from the Boom-Boom Room

Women vs. Wall Street

(Bloomberg Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 342 pages, $26.95)

Reviewed by Gregory Bresiger

Reading this racy book about the sexual harassment of women at Smith

Barney, certain phrases kept crossing my mind: How could it have happened? You've got to be kidding me.

The author spares the reader nothing. Her reporting is impressive. She provides shocking and graphic detail. Most of what went on will not, indeed

cannot, be described here. Antilla, who has excellent sources because she covered the story as it exploded across the pages of the national media, provides chapter and verse of a persistent pattern of sexual harassment at Smith Barney's Garden City, New York branch. This madhouse brokerage had a frequently used party room called "the Boom-Boom Room."

This room, where brokers seemed to spend a hell of lot of time, had a makeshift bar as well as a bicycle and toilet seat hanging from the ceiling. One wonders how any rep ever met his or her production quotas.

While it is not surprising that there was a pattern of sexual harassment in the securities industry, a pattern that may continue to today, what is amazing is the tacit or overt institutional approval of this Animal House behavior at Smith Barney.

Any brokerage, any business, can end up with a rogue or two, male or female, as an employee. It's too bad, but it can happen. Anyone who has ever tried to hire someone realizes that it is not an impossible task to come up with a resume that looks good, yet the person turns out to be a poor hire. The kind of person who is often sent packing within a short period.

The notorious Smith Barney branch manager, Nicholas Cuneo, led the partying, the drinking and obscenities at the Garden City branch, according to Antilla.

Cuneo ran this crazyhouse and he didn't discourage the sexual intimidation of his female brokers, the author writes. He enjoyed it as much as many of his booze-loving male charges, Antilla writes.

"The Boom-Boom Room is now open. We are now serving cocktails," Cuneo would announce on the office loudspeaker just before the close of trading on Friday afternoon (page 63). Sometimes, the merrymaking would begin at 10 o'clock in the morning. To paraphrase Freud, fleeing from Vienna just before the Nazi Anschluss, "the inmates had taken over the asylum."

A woman broker, Kathleen Keegan, had been disgusted by what she had seen in her first months in Garden City. Nevertheless, one Friday afternoon she tried to join in the festivities and found obscenities written about here in the Boom-Boom Room. She confronted Cuneo.

"I'm sick and tired of this [bad behavior] that goes on day in and day out," she tells her boss. "They think it's funny. You think it's funny," she said of her fellow brokers. (page 63). Cuneo, who loved to tell lewd stories in front of everyone according to the author, says he is surprised that she is upset, Antilla reports.

"Don't tell me you're surprised. I want out of here," she tells him.