ROSCOE VILLAGE — Prominent business owner Michael Johnston has been dropped by Chicago-based label Audiotree and venues Schubas Tavern and Lincoln Hall and faces criminal charges after being sued for allegedly setting up hidden cameras in his Roscoe Village home to take nude videos of his nanny.
The lawsuit was filed by two unnamed women who recently graduated from DePaul University, according to the suit. One of the women was hired in December 2019 as a home manager, personal assistant and nanny for Johnston’s two kids. The other woman is her friend and roommate, who also worked as a nanny for one of Johnston’s close friends.
The two women said Johnston and his wife, Kelly Halverson, set up hidden cameras disguised as ordinary household objects to spy on them and take videos while they were bathing and undressed. The lawsuit was first reported by NBC5.
Johnston is co-founder and co-owner of the prominent Audiotree label. He also co-owns Schubas and Lincoln Hall, which he bought in 2015 as part of a partnership. He was removed as CEO of Audiotree, Audiotree Presents, Lincoln Hall, Schubas Tavern and Tied House, which is attached to Schubas, according to a joint statement.
Johnston was arrested Nov. 9 and charged with unauthorized videotaping, according to police records. He is due back in court Wednesday. His wife has not been charged.
“This lawsuit is about a recognition that these breaches of privacy can have a huge impact on a person’s life,” said attorney Gail Eisenberg, who is representing the two women. “You take for granted that you can walk down the street or be in your office and not be watched, but now they’re always thinking, ‘Am I being surveilled? Is my privacy being violated?'”
The alleged inappropriate behavior began in January 2020 — about two weeks after Johnston’s nanny was hired — when Halverson asked her to organize some boxes in their bedroom closet, according to the lawsuit.
One of the boxes was filled with sex toys and other sexual paraphernalia, which made the nanny feel “extremely uncomfortable, but she continued working for the Johnstons,” the lawsuit states.
That same month, Johnston and Halverson asked the nanny to house-sit overnight while they were out of town for vacation. The couple told the nanny to stay in the master bedroom, and encouraged her to invite her friend over, drink their wine and beer and use the suite’s jacuzzi bathtub, according to the suit.
During the nanny’s Jan. 22-26, 2020, stay, the couple secretly filmed the two women undressing and bathing using spy cameras set up throughout the master bedroom suite, the lawsuit alleges.
The nanny didn’t discover the cameras until about a month later, when she was once again asked to house-sit overnight and encouraged to bring her friend over, according to the lawsuit.
The nanny was about to undress for a bath on Feb. 14, 2020, when she discovered a hidden camera, disguised as a picture frame, aimed at the bathtub, the lawsuit alleges. She then searched the home and discovered multiple hidden cameras — some disguised as ordinary household objects.
“They were both very upset and felt extremely violated,” Eisenberg said. “Initially, she took some time off from work but ultimately was discharged because she could not return to work for the Johnstons in that kind of condition.”
The cameras were motion-activated, so they recorded video whenever there was activity within their field of vision, according to the lawsuit.
On one of the days the two women were scheduled to house sit, Johnston was captured positioning the camera, standing in the bathtub and reviewing the camera stream on his cellphone to make sure the bathtub area would be filmed, the suit alleges. Halverson then encouraged the women to use this bathtub before leaving town, according to the lawsuit.
The women think Johnston and Halverson were working together to obtain nude video footage of the two women without their knowledge or consent. They’re seeking an injunction to prevent any footage that might still exist from being shared, Eisenberg said.
“Whenever there’s images of someone taken without their consent, particularly nude images in this digital age, the concern is they’d be out there on the internet forever, and we want to try and mitigate that damage,” Eisenberg said.
In a written statement Monday, Audiotree Presents announced Johnston, a co-founder of the Chicago label, was removed from his role as president and CEO of Audiotree, Lincoln Hall, Schubas Tavern and Tied House.
Johnston and Halverson’s attorney, Damon Cheronis, did not immediately return requests for comment.
Cheronis told NBC5 Johnston “takes these allegations seriously and will continue to work through the appropriate legal process.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.