05/15/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Maury Povich and Connie Chung were the picture of marital bliss on April 28, holding hands and beaming at photographers as they arrived at a Secaucus, N.J., studio to tape their MSNBC show Weekends with Maury & Connie. Though they declined to answer any questions about a $100 million sexual-harassment suit brought four days earlier against Povich and other top executives of Maury, his weekday talk show, Povich did address it in passing on air, saying, "Because the matter is in litigation, the attorneys have advised me not to comment further. And I won't. But we will defend this lawsuit vigorously."
In the suit in question, Maury staffer Bianca Nardi, 28—who says she is now on medical leave as a result of stress she suffered on the job—claims that "a Peyton Place lifestyle and a poisoned atmosphere existed" on the show, fueled by "a long intimate and sexual relationship" between Povich and producer Donna Ingber, 47.
Although neither Povich, 67, nor Chung, 59, would comment further on the charges of infidelity, friends of the couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2004, leaped to Povich's defense. "All I can say is that the two of them are a very loving couple," says Joe Peyronnin, a news executive who has worked with both. "They have had a very romantic relationship since they first fell in love. They are terrific parents [to son Matthew, now 10]. Their character is of the highest caliber."
The same cannot be said of Maury, which often traffics in hidden-camera exposés of illicit sex and emotional confrontations with unfaithful spouses. "I can tell you from my experience," says a former staffer, "the subject matter of the show—paternity issues, 'Is he cheating on me?' stuff—makes it an intrinsically sexually charged environment."
In her lawsuit, Nardi claims she was ordered to seduce married men in a bar with a hidden camera, to "talk dirty" in some segments and to repeatedly "sex it up" in others. She wore a push-up bra so the crew could film her breasts for background footage. As for why Nardi—who claims the harassment began back when she joined the staff in 2000 and steadily worsened—waited until last month to file suit, a friend and former Maury coworker offers an explanation: "It's been something that's been bothering her" for a long time. "She reached a boiling point. She really wasn't happy there, but she loved what she was doing. She loved the guests, and they liked her. I can see how this [harassment] could take place. I was very uncomfortable there."
Nardi's discomfort stemmed, in part, from the favoritism that she says Povich displayed toward Ingber as a result of their alleged liaison. As the suit maintains, "people would refer to Donna as 'Maury's girl,'" says Brian Bates, an antiprostitution crusader who has appeared on the show a dozen times, "but there were nicknames for everyone. I'd see Maury get very mad at Donna if he didn't think a show went really well—just like he did with other staffers."
Although Povich and Chung have been in the media spotlight for more than two decades, prior to this uproar the two only landed on the gossip pages after career moves and during Chung's well-publicized efforts to become pregnant via in vitro fertilization (the couple eventually adopted Matthew in 1995). Riding out this current controversy, "they are doing just fine," says a close friend. "They had a very nice weekend; just the family. It's been business as usual. They are not in hiding. They are living their lives."