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The Human Rights Campaign and its educational arm, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, have fired the national LGBTQ organization’s president, Alphonso David, following a probe into the role he allegedly played in helping former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) combat accusations of sexual harassment.
David, who previously served as in-house counsel to Cuomo prior to joining HRC, was accused of providing aides to Cuomo with the confidential personnel file of a former staffer, Lindsey Boylan, who had publicly accused the governor of sexual harassment. Those aides then allegedly leaked the file, including workplace complaints about Boylan, to media outlets in an attempt to discredit her.
David has previously said that he had a legal obligation to hand over the document in question — which he has characterized as a copy of a memo he helped craft about his time investigating and counseling Boylan over an alleged workplace conflict in which she was involved — to Cuomo’s office upon request. The conflict was unrelated to Boylan’s claims of sexual harassment, according to the attorney general’s report.
The allegations against David first emerged in a report issued by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) following a four-month investigation into sexual harassment accusations lodged against Cuomo by 11 different women. The report found that Cuomo violated federal and state laws, and that his actions created a toxic culture of harassment and fear in his office. Among other behaviors, Cuomo allegedly subjected female aides to unwanted kisses, groped or touched them inappropriately, made insinuating remarks about their looks and their sex lives, and fostered a work environment “rife with fear and intimidation.”
The report alleges that David said he would help find individuals to sign their names to a draft op-ed — which was never published — seeking to defend the governor and discredit Boylan, although he declined to sign his own name. It also claims David was involved in discussions about secretly calling and recording a call between a former Cuomo staffer and another accuser in a separate effort to defame her. But David has said his role in the discussion was limited and pertained to his duties as legal counsel to the governor.
Following the release of the attorney general’s report last month, HRC and the HRC Foundation hired law firm Sidley Austin LLP to help the respective boards of directors conduct a 30-day internal investigation into David’s role in the sexual harassment scandal.
On Sunday afternoon, David posted a statement to his Twitter feed saying that review had found “no wrongdoing” on his part in relation to the Cuomo scandal. He claimed he had been privately contacted by the two co-chairs of the board, Jodie Patterson and Morgan Cox, and their representatives, claiming they informed him verbally that they found no evidence of wrongdoing on his part.
But David, in that statement, also accused the board co-chairs of asking him to consider resigning, on the grounds that his entanglement in the scandal had become a “distraction” from HRC’s mission. He further said that the co-chairs reached that determination based on concerns expressed by two funders and a “small handful of employees” who had emailed them to push for his resignation. David, who has denied any wrongdoing since news of the attorney general’s report broke, insisted he would not resign.
“I have the support of too many of our employees, board members and stakeholders to walk away quietly into the night,” David said. “I am not resigning.”
He also pushed back against the idea that his presence leading HRC was a distraction, calling on HRC to make public the results of the review — while also saying that it remains unclear, based on his conversations with the board co-chairs, whether investigators ever produced a formal report detailing their findings.
“The idea that this is a distraction is simply not right,” David said. “I have not been distracted, nor have my HRC colleagues who are fighting for human rights…. The distraction would be calling for my resignation without providing the results of the review. Keeping the review behind lock and key would be an injustice to me, and more importantly to our employees, supporters, and all members of the HRC community.”
But on Monday, Patterson and Cox, in an email sent to their fellow board members that was later posted to Twitter, said they were “surprised and disappointed” by “inaccuracies in [David’s] portrayal of events,” adding that the investigation would “soon be completed, and the boards will then have more to say.”
Patterson and Cox claimed that David’s assertion that there was “no wrongdoing” on his part was one of several “mischaracterizations” made in his Sunday statement. They added that, at the direction of the boards’ executive committees, they had offered David “the opportunity to discuss in good faith a separation from HRC,” and had begun talks with David’s lawyers about stepping down.
David then posted a subsequent response to Twitter, accusing the co-chairs of having contacted him on Friday night, at which point, he alleges, they told him the review was complete but would not provide him a copy of the report.
“They gave me a deadline of 8am the next morning to tell them whether I would resign,” David said. “They didn’t offer a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing on my part when I asked repeatedly.
“After being silent for 24 hours since I issued my statement, this morning the co-chairs now say that the investigation is not yet complete,” he added. “One of the most troubling questions about the note from the Board co-chairs is that if anyone were to take them at their word that the investigation hasn’t yet wrapped up, even though that is completely opposite what they told me, why would they have pressured me to resign before it was complete and before they had any findings?
“In addition, their silence over the past 24 hours, and now saying the investigation is not yet complete, indicates that they have not yet finalized the findings and had never intended to share any report. Their statements have been so contradictory that we will now see what if anything they produce, and whether it will be on Sidley Austin letterhead as it must be, or something else written by the co-chairs,” David continued. “We’re all left wondering whether this whole process was preordained from the start.”
David also disputed the co-chairs’ claim that his lawyers had begun talks with the board about a possible resignation as false, saying his attorneys only demanded the public release of the report on the investigation.
“Their refusal to offer up the findings, even with the indication that they found no evidence of wrongdoing, and yet still urge me to consider resigning during a holiday weekend to avoid media interest, does disservice to any persons or organizations involved in the fight for civil and human rights,” David said. “We need to end this bullying and a cloak and dagger process that disrespects what we agreed to and that now has the co-chairs scrambling, trying to backpedal and recreate truths.”
Some prominent individuals came to David’s defense, with Randi Weingarten, an out lesbian and the president of the American Federation of Teachers, siding with David’s account of the investigation.
“I know @AlphonsoDavid. He has alway [sic] fought for justice. He is also a wonderful human being. Why after an internal review which clears Alphonso would anyone ask for his resignation,” Weingarten tweeted.
Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is lesbian, thanked David in a tweet for his past work on behalf of the LGBTQ community, telling him to “keep fighting and hold your head high” and urging HRC to “embrace fairness and transparency.”
Perhaps the most scathing rebuke of HRC came in a letter sent to the organization’s board — and later reposted to Twitter — by J. Maurice McCants-Pearsall, HRC’s director of HIV and health equity, who questioned whether there was an element of racial bias in the board’s push for David to step down as president.
“It would be an affront for me, a Black gay man, to sit aside and watch while my brother in the struggle, Alphonso David, be railroaded and striped of his dignity and livelihood,” McCants-Pearsall wrote, praising various initiatives, grants, and programs benefitting Black and Brown communities that were undertaken during David’s tenure as president.
“Since joining the Human Rights Campaign, Alphonso has remained dedicated to the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ community. He uses his platform as President of a storied and oftentimes controversial organization to bring attention to and develop programming for those in the LGBTQ+ community, namely Black and Brown folks who are often relegated to the margin of society,” McCants-Pearsall wrote.
“I personally find the recent developments of the HRC board to be disturbing and undermines the work and headway that was made in the Black and Brown community. If there was an investigation, where is the report?” he continued. “We’ve spent nearly 30 days awaiting the findings of the report, but according to the conversation the board had with Alphonso, there was no evidence of wrongdoing, nor will the report see the light of day. This is appalling, regardless of one’s support for Alphonso or those who think that he should resign, it’s imperative that we see the report to understand what happened and why the board saw fit to ask him to resign.”
McCants-Pearsall, who also serves as co-chair of HRC’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Employee Resource Group, recalled the day that David was announced as the organization’s president and some of the reactions of his white co-workers.
“I was filled with all sorts of emotions from excitement to nervousness to utter fear of what might happen to him as the first Black person to lead HRC. As I looked around the room, my fears were confirmed based on the facial expressions and body language of some of my white counterparts, many of whom have since left the organization. Yet, I wasn’t surprised, for decades and in recent years, HRC has struggled with addressing internal racism among staff. That was made publicly evident under the former administration and subsequent departure of Chad Griffin,” he said.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to question if we’d be in the same situation had Alphonso been a white gay man? My answer is no. I believe that the board would have gone above and beyond to protect him,” McCants-Pearsall continued. “However, Alphonso is a Black man, and sadly, Black people are the most despised creatures in the world. This sentiment is why he wasn’t afforded the same level of blanketed trust and support given to his predecessor. This is disgusting and brings shame on HRC. Contrary to popular belief, Alphonso is supported among staff, members of the press, within the community and among the funders who have personally reached out to me voicing their concern and fear that he’s being railroaded for the sins of a white man.
“As Co-Chair of HRC’s BIPOC ERG, I’ve received countless calls and text messages from Black and Brown staffers and allies who have no confidence in the HRC Board of Directors and the Executive Committee and their responsibility to the staff. This was dangerously mishandled and undermines our commitment and efforts to bring equality for all,” McCants-Pearsall concluded.
But late Monday night, Patterson and Cox released a statement on behalf of the HRC and HRC Foundation Boards of Directors, saying the boards had voted to terminate David “for cause, effective immediately, for violations of his contract with the Human Rights Campaign.”
The co-chairs again took issue with David’s statements absolving himself from wrongdoing, claiming those statements “included significant untruths about the investigation and his status with the organization.” They claimed his providing assistance to Cuomo aides by handing over the documents about Boylan, violated HRC’s “Conflict of Interest” policy and the mission of HRC, which includes “fighting on behalf of all victims of sexual harassment and assault.”
“As a result of this conduct, material damage to HRC/HRCF’s interests, reputation and prospects has resulted or may be expected to result. Additionally, this conduct has created damage to Mr. David’s reputation significant enough to impair his ability to effectively serve as the public face and voice of HRC/HRCF. This damage is evidenced by the intense media surrounding this conduct as well as the hundreds of calls, emails and other negative communications HRC has received from staff, members of the Board of Governors, volunteers, program partners, general members, supporters, corporate partners, political figures, and more expressing serious concern with Mr. David’s conduct and its inconsistency with the values and mission of HRC,” the co-chairs said in their statement.
“This is a painful moment in our movement. While the Board’s decision is not the outcome we had ever envisioned or hoped for in terms of Mr. David’s tenure with HRC, his actions have put us in an untenable position by violating HRC’s core values, policies and mission. Mr. David has a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney and advocate. We are grateful for his leadership over the last two years launching new initiatives to deepen HRC’s commitment to the trans community, expand HRC’s legal work and work in communities of color, and fight voter suppression across the country,” they added.
“As we move forward, our work fighting for all LGBTQ+ People, especially the most marginalized people in our community, remains at our core. Our work is also grounded in a commitment to dismantle racist, bigoted patriarchal systems that continue to oppress and marginalize people on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, culture, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, and gender identity.”
Replacing David as interim president, while the boards search for a full-time replacement, will be Joni Madison, HRC’s chief operating officer and chief of staff, whom Patterson and Cox said they will “closely partner with” and assist in carrying out her duties.
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