ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (CBS/AP) — The Miss America Organization has suspended its CEO after reports of disparaging e-mails within the organization targeting former winners of the beauty pageant.

The man at the center of the controversy, CEO Sam Haskell, says those e-mails are being taken out of context.

Nonetheless, the reports, first surfacing in the Huffington Post, are taking their toll.

Forty-nine former Miss Americas signed an open letter calling for Haskell’s resignation, along with that the organization’s President and Chairman of the Board.

It called the emails by Haskell and others “despicable” and faulted officials who “sat by without objection while such derisive comments were passed around.”

“We are deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the sickening and egregious words used by Miss America leadership,” the petition read. “We collectively call for their immediate resignation.”

Several of the emails targeted Mallory Hagan, who won the 2013 pageant, claiming she had gained weight after winning and speculating about how many men she had sex with.

“My hope is that this story that broke will bring light to the type of behavior that’s been in leadership of the Miss America Organization and really help us put in place some people who care and who embody the mission of Miss America,” Hagan said in a Twitter video . “Having somebody bully you, demean you, degrade you in any way is not OK.”

Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, who signed the petition, told The Associated Press she “lived under this misogynistic leadership for a year of my life, and I’m definitely glad to see all of this evidence come into the light.”

She also said pageant officials “told me which former Miss Americas I wasn’t allowed to associate with or pose for photos with.”

In other emails, a former writer for the pageant notes the death of one former Miss America and muses that he wished 1998 Miss America Kate Shindle, who wrote a book critical of the Miss America Organization, had died instead. Haskell responded to the email, indicating it made him laugh.

Miss America Organization Loses TV Partner Over Emails

Haskell also wrote of tactics that would drive 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson “insane.” The Huffington Post reported she had clashed with Haskell and pageant officials over her push to modernize the organization, and her refusal to attack other former Miss America winners.

On Friday, the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority began reviewing its contract with the Miss America Organization, which has about $4 million left on it, after numerous local and state officials called for the final year of the deal to be killed.

The emails already cost the pageant its television production partner and raised questions about the future of the nationally televised broadcast from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall the week after Labor Day each year. Dick Clark Productions told the AP on Thursday night that it cut ties with the Miss America Organization over the emails, calling them “appalling.”

The Huffington Post article shows that Haskell and others directed considerable attention to Hagan. He forwarded an email he had been sent regarding Hagan to a writer for the pageant, who has since been terminated.

The writer responded by questioning whether he and Haskell were part of a tiny group of people who had not had sex with Hagan.

According to the Huffington Post, Haskell replied: “It appears we are the only ones!”

The producers of the televised final night of the annual pageant, Dick Clark Productions, severed their relationship with Miss America.

The Miss America Organization issued a statement obtained by KYW Newsradio.

“The Miss America Organization Board of Directors today voted to suspend Executive Chairman and CEO Sam Haskell. Mr. Haskell, in support of the organization, has agreed to abide by the Board’s decision. The Board will be conducting an in-depth investigation into alleged inappropriate communications and the nature in which they were obtained. In addition, the Board wishes to reaffirm our commitment to the education and empowerment of young women, supporting them in every way possible.”

Later, the Organization e-mailed a statement from Haskell.

“In response to the vicious story on me in the Huffington Post regarding Miss America and a series of conveniently edited emails, it is important for you to know that the events are not as described.

Much of what was reported is dishonest, deceptive, and despicable. The material is based on private emails that were stolen three years ago by ex employees. The story is so unkind and untrue, and hurts me, my family, and the stewardship of this non-profit. Those who know my heart know that this is not indicative of my character, nor is it indicative of my business acumen. I was under stress from a full year of attacks by two Miss Americas, and while I don’t ever want to offer an excuse, I do want to offer context.

This was not the CEO of an Organization laughing at inappropriate jokes and speaking about a former Miss America in email conversations. This was a father whose family was being attacked, and a man whose character was being assassinated daily, which impaired my judgment when responding to the inappropriate emails sent to me about them. For that, I deeply apologize.

For years, I have dedicated my life to this organization – dedicated to empowering young women. This discussion is an unfortunate distraction from the good work that thousands of volunteers around this country have done to provide more scholarships to young women than any other scholarship organization in the nation. I have the utmost respect for the women of this program and contestants at every level. It breaks my heart for anyone to think otherwise.

My mistake is a mistake of words. Therefore, to allow the MAO Board of Directors and me time to properly evaluate the situation, I will beabiding by their decision to suspend me in my capacity as Executive Chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization while an investigation takes place.”

KYW’s David Madden contributed to this report.

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