New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is holding onto what’s left of his political career by the skin of his teeth after an extensive report on his alleged pattern of predation and allegations of sexual harassment by 11 women was published by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday, August 3. However, several members of his extended circle are already feeling the repercussions of the fallout.
On Monday, it was announced that Time’s Up co-founder and board co-chair, attorney Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan had stepped down from the organization’s leadership after James’ report suggested that Kaplan and Time’s Up President Tina Tchen advised the governor’s staff in the wake of the allegations—specifically, on a letter refuting allegations made by former staffer turned accuser Lindsey Boylan drafted by Cuomo and “a group of advisers” and intended to be published by “former Executive Chamber staff members who had worked with Ms. Boylan and the Governor.” Per the AG’s report (h/t Washington Post), the intent of the letter was to discredit Boylan.
The various drafts of this letter included complaints against Ms. Boylan that were part of the Confidential Files. The drafts also discussed alleged interactions between Ms. Boylan and male colleagues other than the Governor. The letter denied the legitimacy of Ms. Boylan’s allegations, impugned her credibility, and attacked her claims as politically motivated (including with theories about connections with supporters of President Trump and a politician with an alleged interest in running for Governor).
According to the report, former Cuomo senior aide Melissa DeRosa, who resigned on Sunday after also being implicated in the maligning of Boylan, told investigators she was instructed to consult with Kaplan, who, in turn, consulted with Time’s Up.
Ms.DeRosa’s understanding was that the letter would be in response to Ms. Boylan’s sexual harassment allegations.964 She told the Governor that she thought the letter would backfire, in part because the draft included information that was based on hearsay and secondhand sources and “it would be really hard to get anyone to sign it.”965 The Governor directed Ms. DeRosa to seek input from “some of the folks on the team.”966 He asked her to send the draft to Roberta Kaplan (an attorney at the firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, and now counsel to Ms. DeRosa with respect to our investigation), Mr. Cohen, and Ms. Lacewell, as well as Ms. Mogul.967 Ms. DeRosa also sent the draft to Mr. David, Mr. Vlasto, Ms. Lever, and Ms. Walsh.968 According to Ms. DeRosa, Ms. Kaplan read the letter to the head of the advocacy group Times Up, and both of them allegedly suggested that, without the statements about Ms. Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine.969...Ms. DeRosa reported back to the Governor that Ms. Kaplan and the head of Times Up thought the letter was okay with some changes, as did Mr. Cohen, but everyone else thought it was a bad idea.976
Understandably, many perceived the involvement of Kaplan and Time’s Up to be at odds with the organization’s stated mission to advocate for survivors of abuse in the workplace. Tchen quickly refuted DeRosa’s account of her involvement in a statement issued on August 4.
“First, I would never, nor have I ever, worked to discredit a survivor in any way. Secondly, I have never given advice to the Governor or his team,” Tchen maintained. “I had a phone call with Robbie Kaplan about a letter she said was being sent by his staffers during which I gave the same advice I give to everyone else: No survivor should be attacked and the truth should be told. I’m furious that the Governor’s office used me and TIME’S UP as a justification for their defense. TIME’S UP is an organization that has always centered survivors while holding those committing harm accountable. Any characterization of us to the contrary is simply not true.”
Vehement as it may have been, Tchen’s denial of wrongdoing didn’t quell all concerns. In fact, some suggested it represents an ongoing conflict of interest between the organization’s public face and private dealings. An open letter from unidentified survivors was published on Medium Monday morning via the account of Alison Turkos, accusing Tchen and Kaplan of having “weaponized their knowledge” to provide an assist to the governor. Turkos identifies herself as “a sexual assault survivor fighting for systemic change,” the letter on her page reading, in part:
We were dismayed yet unsurprised to see TIME’S UP leaders Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen named in the 165 page Attorney General’s report investigating the allegations of sexual harassment by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In the detailed report, Kaplan and Tchen, in their roles at TIME’S UP, weaponized their knowledge of survivors experiences to help Governor Cuomo and his office retaliate against at least one of nearly a dozen women who were courageous in speaking up about the myriad of ways he abused his power and violated their bodies in the workplace. Furthermore, we were vexed to see TIME’S UP board member, Hilary Rosen, characterize this breach of trust as ‘a good deed being punished’ and that it’s normal for TIME’S UP to “[do] what they always do, give good advice to politicians to tell the truth and not attack their accusers.” There is a consistent pattern of behavior where the decision-makers at TIME’S UP continue to align themselves with abusers at the expense of survivors. TIME’S UP should be ashamed.
TIME’S UP has prioritized its proximity to power over mission. And now that TIME’S UP’s board members’ and staff’s actions have come to light, you cannot rewrite history by signing open letters to the New York State Senate and Assembly calling on them to remove Governor Cuomo from office when you actively worked to further his defense behind closed doors.
Kaplan announced her resignation Monday with a letter procured by the New York Times which read in part: “Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that even our apparent allies in the fight to advance women can turn out to be abusers...We have felt the raw, personal and profound pain of that betrayal.”
Referencing her ongoing legal representation of DeRosa, she added: “I cannot offer the degree of transparency about my firm’s matters now being demanded, since that would be contrary to my responsibilities as a lawyer. I therefore have reluctantly come to the conclusion that an active litigation practice is no longer compatible with serving on the Board at Times Up at this time and I hereby resign.”
In response to the survivors’ open letter and Kaplan’s departure, Time’s Up issued the following statement to The Root, including a multi-point outline of strategies the organization is employing to counter the distrust of the community they aim to serve, reading in part:
We hold ourselves accountable. The events of the last week have made it clear that our process should be evaluated and we intend to do just that. We need more transparency about our vision of change-making, and we need a more inclusive process to engage the broader survivor community, many of whom have spent years doing the noble work of fighting for women. We admire those who have been on this front line for years by choice or by their own story. As an entire organization we are going to take time and evaluate how we best do this collectively or as individuals. We are working with our team on how we show up in this next phase of this work. We will seek engagement with survivor communities, allies and critics alike. And we will share our intentions...
Our staff does incredible work and contributes to change every day. So we are counting on our sisters and allies not to lose sight of the broader work and let a man’s treachery be overshadowed in any way. We do not ask for a pass. We ask for perspective.
However, Time’s Up isn’t the only advocacy organization with members of leadership under scrutiny for their affiliation with Cuomo. As previously reported by The Root, Cuomo turned to several Black allies for support as allegations mounted this spring, with the New York Times reporting in March:
As Mr. Cuomo navigates a deepening scandal over allegations of sexual harassment, he has leaned on his deep well of support in the Black community, which has reliably backed him and twice helped him win re-election. The governor and his associates have been working the phones, seeking the support of Black leaders and elected officials who could serve as a firewall against the barrage of calls for his resignation or impeachment.
Those leaders included former congressman Charles Rangel and leader of New York’s state chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. Hazel N. Dukes, both of whom heaped praise upon the embattled politician at the time. But Cuomo’s allies apparently also included Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, whom, after recently having a five-year extension added to his contract, is now the focus of an independent investigation commissioned by the boards of the nation’s largest gay rights group. Specifically, David is also facing questions “for his role advising the staff of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during their efforts to undermine the credibility of a woman who had accused the governor of sexual harassment,” reports the Washington Post.
“The last few days have been difficult here at the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation,” board chairs Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson wrote in in an email to staff on Monday morning, a sharp reversal from their statement of “full confidence” in David last week. Noting that legal firm Sidley Austin LLP has been hired to conduct a monthlong internal investigation that “will include consideration of whether Alphonso David’s actions aligned with HRC’s mission and values, as well as with professional and ethical standards,” the email was also published as a statement in full by the organization’s social media. “The HRC and HRC Foundation Boards of Directors take your questions very seriously—we want them answered too,” reported the Post.
David, a former counsel to the governor prior to his tenure at HRC, was also implicated in James’ report, which found that he had also “helped revise a letter meant to undermine the claims of former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan. After some revisions, he read the letter to other people in an effort to gather signatures. He also gave the governor’s aides a memo about an unrelated personnel matter involving Boylan, which he had kept after leaving state government, the report stated. Boylan’s personnel file was later shared by Cuomo aides with reporters,” the Post reported.
Like Tchen, David has refuted the characterization of his involvement, issuing his own statement in response and claiming that he was not aware of the scope of the allegations when asked to review the letter in question.
“Multiple inaccuracies have been circulating and therefore this definitive role is important,” he wrote. “I deeply empathize with all survivors and understand how these types of events can perpetuate their own traumas. What the Governor is accused of doing is reprehensible and antithetical to our values and all that we fight for.”
The Root has reached out to HRC for further comment on the issue, and will provide updates if any is given.
Updated: Monday, 8/9/21 at 4:24 p.m., ET: In response to The Root’s request, the Human Rights Campaign shared the full statements from Human Rights Campaign and Foundation Board Chairs Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson as well as Alphonso David’s statement in its entirety, expressing his support for the independent inquiry:
A joint statement from Cox and Patterson:
We commend the courage of the many survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment who have come forward, and give them our full support. Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation President Alphonso David’s inclusion in the New York State Attorney General’s report on the investigation of Governor Andrew Cuomo is very concerning. Over the past several days, HRC’s employees, supporters, board members and partners have raised questions about the appropriateness of Alphonso David’s actions and whether they align with HRC’s decades’ long mission of fighting for equality and justice for all.
The HRC and Foundation Boards of Directors take these questions very seriously. At the direction of the Boards, HRC has retained an experienced outside law firm (Sidley Austin LLP) to conduct an internal investigation. Sidley Austin will report only to and work at the direction of the Boards of Directors in conducting a thorough investigation. The investigation will include consideration of whether Alphonso David’s actions aligned with HRC’s mission and values, as well as with professional and ethics standards. This board-led investigation, with which David is cooperating, will take no longer than 30 days, and will help shed light on the events that unfolded and guide the Boards on any necessary next steps. This investigation will in no way hinder the organizations’ continued pursuit of the critical work necessary to bring equity and liberation to the LGBTQ+ Community.
Statement of Alphonso David:
I fully endorse the decision of the boards of the Human Rights Campaign to conduct an independent review of the New York State Attorney General’s report. It is an important effort to ensure the transparency that I have supported and engaged in with the board and staff since I joined this organization. I appreciate the open dialogue we are having and the support of so many across our organization.
Multiple inaccuracies have been circulating and therefore this definitive review is important. For instance, I had no knowledge of any incidents of misconduct involving the 11 survivors referenced in the AG’s report and in fact learned about these allegations by reading the report. I was directed to turn over an electronic copy of a counseling memo regarding a state employee after I left state service, which I was legally obligated to do for a former client. As the report makes clear, I was not involved in any public dissemination of that memo (which was part of a larger physical file all in the possession of the Governor’s office). I was also asked to sign a letter about that same employee, which I refused to sign and never agreed to circulate it. I did not sign their original letter nor any of their other letters because it runs counter to my basic principles and the work I’ve dedicated my life to. I have been and will always be an ally to survivors everywhere for whom we fight every day.
Incidents like these trigger the experiences of other survivors, including some in our own HRC family. I deeply empathize with all survivors and understand how these types of events can perpetuate their own traumas. What the Governor is accused of doing is reprehensible and antithetical to our values and all that we fight for. I have called for his resignation and reiterate that call today. One thing this horrible situation reminds us of is that discrimination, misconduct, and abuse often thrive in darkness, and it makes me more determined than ever to continue fighting injustice and speaking up for those who need our voice. I have devoted my entire career to fighting for justice, and my mission in life and our collective work has never been more important.