The Human Rights Campaign and its foundation have hired a prominent law firm to investigate the work of the organization’s president, Alphonso David, in helping New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo respond to accusations of sexual harassment.
“We commend the courage of the many survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment who have come forward, and give them our full support,” said a statement released Monday morning by Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson, board chairs for HRC and the HRC Foundation, respectively. “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.”
David will continue in his role as president of HRC and the foundation during the investigation, and the findings are expected to be released shortly after the probe is finished.
David released a statement in support of the investigation. “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," he said. "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. They tried to use me, as they have used countless others. 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.”
David was in-house counsel to Cuomo before joining HRC in 2019. In December of last year, after the allegations against Cuomo surfaced, David joined in the response effort, as detailed in a report issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s office last Tuesday. The report concluded that Cuomo indeed engaged in sexual harassment and that the response to it constituted unlawful retaliation against one accuser, Lindsey Boylan. Boylan is planning to sue Cuomo for retaliation, and others could be named in the suit, her attorney, Jill Basinger, told NPR.
Melissa DeRosa, then secretary to Cuomo (she resigned over the weekend), contacted David seeking information on Boylan, a former state employee, after Boylan went public with her accusations in December, according to the report. David provided records concerning a meeting he had with Boylan in 2018 about her frustrations in her job and the complaints some employees had about her. He has said as the state’s former counsel, he was legally obligated to share the information, and it turned out the state had the requested records anyway. Another person involved in the response, Rich Azzopardi, circulated the information to the media in an effort to discredit Boylan and show she was fired, but she had actually resigned voluntarily.
David was then consulted about a document drafted by Cuomo and others, defending the governor and seeking to deny the legitimacy of Boylan’s accusations. It was intended to be sent to media outlets as a letter to the editor or a commentary piece. David was asked to sign the document; he refused, saying he doubted the truth of some of its claims, although he volunteered to seek out others to sign it. It was never published, but Azzopardi did show it to some members of the media. David recently told The Washington Post that he did not know all the details of the allegations against Cuomo when he was first approached about the letter. “The facts as outlined in the report are devastating,” he said. “Seeking our engagement without disclosing all of the relevant facts about any and all survivors is reprehensible.”
The attorney general’s report also mentions David was involved in discussions about calling another accuser, identified in the James report as Kaitlin, and secretly recording the call. “In that instance, it was simply asking me, in my role as a former counsel, what the law was, not the context,” David told the Washington Blade last week. David has not commented to The Advocate since the report was released. He has tweeted that Cuomo should resign.
David had a conference call with HRC staffers last week, during which some called for his resignation, although sources have said some were supportive of him. A recording of the call was shared with HuffPost and some other media outlets.
The HRC has renewed David’s contract for another five years, and announcement of the renewal fell coincidentally on the same day the James report came out, with the board chairs expressing confidence in David and praising his “extraordinary leadership” of the organization.
David is not the only prominent LGBTQ+ activist whose connections with Cuomo have raised concern. DeRosa told the attorney general’s investigators that she had shown a draft of the governor’s commentary piece to Roberta Kaplan, famed as the attorney who brought down the Defense of Marriage Act. She said Kaplan and the head of Time’s Up, which assists survivors of sexual harassment and assault, said the document was fine if certain information about Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues was omitted. Kaplan and the Time’s Up head, Tina Tchen, were not interviewed by investigators.
Kaplan gave a statement to the Post last week, saying, “While it turns out the response was never published, I made it very clear that any response should never shame an accuser. Given the revelations in the New York Attorney General report, I support and agree with Time’s Up that Governor Cuomo should resign.”
Tchen told the Post she did not recall all the details of her conversation with Kaplan but that Cuomo’s team should not have taken it as support. “You cannot make any attempt to attack or discredit a person who has come forward with allegations,” she said. “Had those parts existed in what was read to me, I would have said, ‘Do not say that.’”