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President of country’s largest LGBTQ rights group ensnared in Cuomo scandal

Some are calling for Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David to step down over actions described in an investigative report about New York’s embattled governor. 
Alphonso David, newly elected president of the Human Rights Campaign, on Dec. 19, 2020 in Atlanta.
Alphonso David, newly elected president of the Human Rights Campaign, last December in Atlanta.Elijah Nouvelage / for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The president of the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization is facing calls to resign over his alleged role in efforts to discredit a woman who accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, who served as the embattled governor’s chief counsel from 2015-19, is mentioned dozens of times throughout a report released Tuesday by the New York Attorney General’s Office that concluded Cuomo sexually harassed nearly a dozen women and violated the law. Cuomo denied any wrongdoing in a video statement after the report was released and said he would issue his own report to “share the truth.”

LGBTQ advocates calling for David to step down say they are particularly alarmed by several incidents from December that they allege show David aided in efforts to discredit one of the governor’s accusers. Most of the incidents mentioned in the report took place while David was serving as president of the Human Rights Campaign.

David, who called for Cuomo to resign Tuesday after the report’s release, told NBC News in an email Thursday that the findings “made me sick to my stomach.”

“I was never aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct, and no one ever reported them to me, as the report verifies,” he said. “Of the 11 survivors, I only directly engaged with one, and that was on a personnel matter that had nothing to do with sexual misconduct.”

The report verifies that no one reported allegations of sexual misconduct to David during his employment as the governor’s chief counsel, and that he only had contact with one of Cuomo’s accusers, Lindsey Boylan, regarding a personnel matter. According to the report, David first became aware of Boylan’s allegations in December 2020 — while he was president of the Human Rights Campaign. Boylan is at the center of most of the incidents described in the report that involve David.

The file, the phone call, the letter

Boylan, a former Cuomo staffer whom the governor’s office is accused of attempting to smear, tweeted on Dec. 5 that the work environment in the governor’s office was “beyond toxic.”

A few days later, on Dec. 13, she publicly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment on Twitter, writing, “@NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years.”

After Boylan first began tweeting about the governor in early December, Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s secretary, asked David for a confidential personnel file on Boylan from her time working in the executive chamber, according to emails and text message exchanges cited in the report. David, who had met with Boylan after other employees had filed complaints against Boylan, directed DeRosa to the governor’s acting counsel, who shared the full file with DeRosa, according to the report.

DeRosa has not responded to a request for comment and has not issued a public response to the attorney general’s report.

A few days later, David shared additional documents “relating to his investigation into and counseling” of Boylan for personnel matters, according to David’s testimony. He sent the documents to Richard Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior deputy communications director and senior adviser at the time, and testified that he kept a copy of the documents even after he left his job as Cuomo’s chief counsel because it “may have been the only instance where [he] was actually involved in a counseling of an employee when [he] was in the Executive Chamber,” the report says.

In an effort to discredit Boylan, Cuomo’s aides later leaked the file — which included the documents David shared — to a number of news outlets, along with a statement that there was “no truth” to her claims, according to the report. 

The report does not claim that David was involved in the decision to leak the file.

In another alleged incident described in the report, Cuomo’s aides — not including David — pressured a former staffer to call a woman named Kaitlin, who had tweeted in support of Boylan after she initially tweeted her accusations. DeRosa “was looking for information about if [Kaitlin] was working with Lindsey [Boylan] or if she had allegations against the Governor,” the report says. Investigators also allege that David was involved in discussions about recording the call, though a source familiar with the situation told NBC News that David does not recall having any such conversations and did not know Kaitlin, whose last name is not included in the report.

Kaitlin had not accused Cuomo of harassment at that time, though she later said the governor grabbed her at a fundraiser and made her feel uncomfortable at work, the report states.

In another alleged incident around Dec. 15, David was involved in the circulation of a letter or op-ed that “denied the legitimacy of Ms. Boylan’s allegations, impugned her credibility, and attacked her claims as politically motivated,” according to the report.

Though the letter was never published or sent, investigators found that “its substance was shared with a significant number of current and former Executive Chamber employees who were not otherwise aware of the information in it,” and that the way the governor’s office responded to Boylan’s allegations amounted to unlawful retaliation.

David testified that he told DeRosa “he was not signing the letter but was willing to reach out to others to see if they would sign it,” according to the report, though DeRosa testified that David later said he would sign it if need be. David, among others, also “sent or read drafts of the letter to a number of other former Executive Chamber staff members to ask them to sign it or to seek their help in getting others to sign it,” the report says.

It later notes that “Mr. David testified that he did not agree to have his name attached to the statement because he did not know if the statements in it were true and he did not think it was a good response.”

Roberta Kaplan, an attorney who successfully argued the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, also saw the letter, according to investigators, and she showed it to Tina Tchen, the head of advocacy at Time’s Up, a charity that support’s victims of sexual harassment.

Kaplan has not returned a request for comment, but told The Washington Post that she “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,” she added.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Tchen wrote that she has never given advice to the governor or his team. 

“I’m furious that the Governor’s office used me and TIME’S UP as a justification for their defense,” she wrote. “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.”

The same source familiar with the situation told NBC News that even after the letter discrediting Boylan was revised, David refused to sign it because he was not familiar with many of the references in it. The source also corroborated David’s claim that he was not advised of any sexual misconduct claims that the office may have been aware of.

Pressure from advocates, officials

According to press reports, David is facing pressure from some Human Rights Campaign staff to step down. In an all-staff meeting Wednesday, employees asked him to resign several times, according to The Washington Post and HuffPost, which both reportedly obtained audio of the meeting. The Human Rights Campaign did not respond to NBC News’ requests seeking to verify these reports. 

A few officials and advocates have publicly called on David to resign.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who is running for re-election, wrote on Twitter that she would not accept “campaign donations or support” from the Human Rights Campaign “until there is a new president of this organization.” Nessel, an out lesbian, was the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Michigan.

Alejandra Caraballo, a civil rights attorney, said “that’s not the type of leadership I want to see at the top of the LGBTQ Movement.”

Paul Southwick, an attorney representing LGBTQ students in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Education, said, “Our movement must have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and for those who discredit survivors.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, regarding David’s inclusion in the attorney general’s report. Grassley, who serves as the committee’s ranking member, requested that the letter be entered into the committee’s official record for a hearing held in March on the Equality Act, which David testified in favor of. The Equality Act is sweeping federal legislation that would provide discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in many areas of life and has been stalled in the Senate since the hearing.

“The New York Attorney General’s findings respecting Mr. David are relevant to the record of this Senate hearing, at which the potential adverse impacts of the Equality Act on women and girls were an important aspect of our hearing discussion,” Grassley wrote in the letter published Thursday. 

Grassley wrote, “It is highly concerning that Mr. David, who purports to speak for victims of discrimination and retaliation, reportedly played some role in retaliation against a female victim of sexual harassment.”

On Tuesday, the day before the reported staff meeting and the same day the New York attorney general’s report was released, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board announced that it would be extending David’s contract for another five years, according to a joint statement shared with the Washington Blade and other news outlets. 

The board has not returned NBC News’ request for comment regarding the attorney general’s report, but HRC Foundation Board chair Jodie Patterson and HRC Board of Directors chair Morgan Cox told the Washington Blade in the statement Wednesday, after David’s contract was extended, that they “have full confidence in Alphonso David as president of the organization.”

“In recognition of his extraordinary leadership during extremely challenging times, we were proud to extend his contract to stay on in his role for five more years,” they said in a statement sent to the Blade in response to inquiries about the attorney general’s report. “For the last two years he has been boldly leading the organization as it works to achieve its mission: full equality for all LGBTQ people, in the midst of a global pandemic, a nationwide reckoning on racial justice, and the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.”

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