By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - A former assistant to Harvey Weinstein who signed a non-disclosure agreement in 1998 preventing her from talking about the alleged rape of a colleague told British lawmakers she was left fearing she could go to jail if she spoke out.
Zelda Perkins, who worked in the London offices of Weinstein's Miramax company from 1995 to 1998, resigned after a colleague told her the producer had tried to rape her during an encounter in Venice where they were attending a film festival.
Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex made by more than 70 women. Reuters has not independently verified allegations made against him by dozens of women.
Giving evidence on Wednesday to a committee of British lawmakers who are investigating sexual harassment in the workplace, Perkins said she was under duress when she signed the non-disclosure agreement and described it as immoral.
She said lawyers had advised her that she had no realistic option other than a secrecy deal because of the disparity in wealth and power between herself and Weinstein.
She and her colleague were told that if they went to the police they risked having their lives and reputations destroyed.
Perkins, who was 24 years old at the time, said the negotiations that led up to the non-disclosure agreement involved gruelling meetings with lawyers including one that lasted from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.
"It was a sort of siege mentality. You lose track of time and place. You're in a battle," she told the lawmakers.
After she signed the document, she was not allowed to keep a copy. Perkins said she was never able to work in film again as rumors circulated that she was out of favor with Weinstein and it would be a bad move to hire her. She left Britain for five years to rebuild her life.
Perkins said the agreement prevented her from talking to anyone, including doctors or therapists, about any aspect of what had happened, without them first entering into their own secrecy agreement with Weinstein.
She said the intense pressure she was under and the way the agreement had been presented to her by lawyers led to her believing she could face criminal charges if she breached it.
"I thought I would go to jail," she told the committee.
Non-disclosure agreements are private civil contracts that would never override criminal proceedings. A breach of such an agreement could lead to a civil suit for damages but not to a criminal charge.
Perkins and her colleague were each paid a total of 125,000 pounds ($175,000) as part of the agreement, which also included clauses requiring Weinstein to attend therapy and Miramax to introduce a new human resources structure for grievances.
"However, it was clear that the payment was hush money ... and that he and Miramax ignored the terms of the agreement and have not felt bound by it," she said in written evidence to the lawmakers prepared ahead of her oral evidence session.
Perkins first broke her silence in October last year, following a series of revelations about alleged sexual misconduct by Weinstein, formerly one of Hollywood's most influential men whose company filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.
She is now campaigning for changes to the law and better regulation so that non-disclosure agreements cannot be used to intimidate vulnerable people and deprive them of their rights.
Maria Miller, chair of the committee, said Weinstein had been invited to provide evidence but had declined. She said he would be given a further opportunity after Perkins' session.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)