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HRC announces independent review of president ensnared in NY AG report

by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. Photo: Michael Key/Washington Blade
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. Photo: Michael Key/Washington Blade  

The nation's leading LGBTQ advocacy group has announced to staff an independent review of Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, after he was ensnared in the damning report from the New York attorney general finding Governor Andrew Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing 11 women employees.

A pair of emails — one from the HRC board, the other from David — went out the morning of August 9 and announced the independent review would be conducted by Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin LLP that will take no longer than 30 days to complete. The emails were shared with the Washington Blade and a representative for HRC confirmed the emails were accurate.

David, in his email, stated he "fully endorse[s]" the review, reiterating he has joined calls for Cuomo to resign and denies any wrongdoing.

"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," David wrote.

Cuomo (D), announced his resignation August 10 and will step down in two weeks.

A spokesperson from Sidley Austin LLP didn't immediately respond in time for this posting to comment on the nature of the review, who will conduct it, or the timeline to reach benchmarks within that 30-day window.

The announcement comes nearly a week after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued the explosive report, which sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ community as many called on David to resign.

David, a gay man, has denied any wrongdoing from the start, and the HRC board stood by him by announcing on the day the report was issued the organization had renewed his contract for another five years.

Internally, things are tense for David as the organization suffers from high turnover and the movement is under strain as anti-transgender bills advance through state legislatures and the Equality Act is held up in Congress. According to a report in the Huffington Post, a recording of a one-hour staff meeting between David and staff August 4 revealed a tense question as they asked him about his role in the Cuomo affair. One staffer asked, "When are you resigning?"

Another LGBTQ advocate included in the report is already making moves. Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued in 2013 against the Defense of Marriage Act and has taken cases of women accusing former President Donald Trump of sexual assault, has stepped down from her role as a board member for Time's Up," according to reports in the Associated Press and New York Times.

(Kaplan was described in the report as having reviewed and read a potential op-ed seeking to discredit one of the survivors of sexual harassment to see if it was OK to make public. The op-ed went unpublished.)

The emails on Monday from the HRC board recognize the distress David's inclusion in the report has caused the LGBTQ community. As noted in the emails from the board and David, many people in the LGBTQ community are survivors of sexual misconduct. Both emails, nonetheless, express a desire to continue forward.

"One thing we want to make clear, this investigation will in no way hinder the organization's continued pursuit of the critical work necessary to being equity and liberation to the LGBTQ+ community," the board writes in the email.

David in his email goes into detail about the findings in the report, maintaining he had no knowledge about any incident of sexual misconduct as described in the report and his inclusion in the report indicates no wrongdoing.

Although the AG's report says David kept material from a personnel file on one of the accusers after he left Cuomo's office and, after being asked by Cuomo for a copy, assisted in returning it to them in efforts to distribute it to the media and discredit the alleged victim, David says he was "legally obligated" to provide the report and "was not involved" in its public dissemination. Why he had the material in the first place is not addressed in his email. David is quoted in the report as saying that was because he was involved in counseling the employee.

Another component of report indicates David said he'd help seek out names for the op-ed that would have sought to discredit the accuser, although he allegedly said he wouldn't sign the document. David, in his email, acknowledges he refused to sign it and says he "never agreed to circulate it."

David, however, doesn't in the email address a third component of the report finding he took part in discussions among Cuomo's staffers about calling another accuser and secretly obtaining a recording in an attempt to discredit her. David told the Blade that was because his role in the conversation was in his capacity as legal counsel.

Although voices have emerged calling on David to resign, other LGBTQ leaders have come to David's defense and others say they're awaiting further information before rendering a judgment.

Elizabeth Birch, a former executive director of HRC, said in an email to the Blade she stands behind David.

"I have enormous respect for Alphonso David," Birch stated. "No person who has endured sexual harassment should ever be silenced. I believe Alphonso when he states he did not participate in attempts to silence any of Governor Cuomo's accusers."

Meanwhile, the report is already hampering efforts to advance the legislative agenda for the LGBTQ movement and passage of the Equality Act, which was already all but dead in the U.S. Senate. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) last week sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking for inclusion of the AG report in the record, drawing on the ties between David and Cuomo's sexual misconduct to build the narrative from opponents of the Equality Act asserting it would be a threat to women's safety.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, wrote in an email to the Blade (before Cuomo resigned) that she is withholding judgment and her organization is "still processing the media related to the NY AG Cuomo investigation and report."

"It is imperative, albeit at times difficult, that we remain vigilant in finding and accepting the truth and implementing interventions that facilitate our ability to rebuild trust and keep the work moving forward," Johnson stated. "These times require that we slow down, challenge ourselves to articulate and understand complexity and nuance, resist being reactive, and lean into our values. We condemn sexual harassment and abuse, and we are in solidarity with the survivors' quests for justice."

Johnson, however added, the report makes clear Cuomo "should resign" because that would be "the right thing to do for NY and for survivors everywhere."

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