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Prominent LGBTQ leaders face increased scrutiny after Cuomo report

Civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan resigned from the Time’s Up board, and Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David is the focus of an internal investigation.
Alphonso David and Roberta Kaplan.
Alphonso David and Roberta Kaplan are accused of being involved in efforts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office to discredit a woman who accused him of sexual harassment.AP Images; Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two prominent LGBTQ leaders are facing mounting criticism because of their inclusion in an investigative report released last week on sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, is now the focus of an internal HRC investigation. Roberta Kaplan, an attorney who successfully argued the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, resigned Monday as chair of Time’s Up, a charity that supports victims of sexual harassment and assault. 

David and Kaplan are accused of being involved in efforts by the governor’s office to discredit his first accuser, Lindsey Boylan. 

They were both involved with a draft letter/op-ed written by Cuomo’s office in December 2020 that investigators described as “disparaging” Boylan, though it was never published, according to the report. 

Some of the people who saw the letter described it as “victim shaming.” David — who served as the governor’s chief counsel from 2015-19 but was  president of the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, at the time — said that he did not think the letter was a good response and that he wouldn’t sign it. The report alleges that he agreed to circulate the letter to see if others would sign it, but he denied that allegation in a statement emailed to NBC News.

Kaplan allegedly told the Cuomo administration that, “without the statements about Ms. Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine,” according to the report. She’s faced criticism from survivors of sexual assault and harassment since the report was published Aug. 3, in part because of her role as co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which supports people who have experienced workplace sexual harassment and retaliation.

She resigned Monday as chair of Time’s Up, and wrote in a resignation letter first published by The New York Times and obtained by NBC News that she “could not offer the degree of transparency about my firm’s matters now being demanded, since that would be contrary to my responsibilities as a lawyer.” Kaplan is representing Melissa DeRosa, who resigned Sunday as the governor’s secretary and who the report alleges played a leading role in efforts to discredit Boylan.

Kaplan and DeRosa have not responded to additional requests for comment regarding the attorney general’s report. Kaplan told The Washington Post that she “made it very clear that any response should never shame an accuser.” 

Cuomo denied any wrongdoing in a video statement after the report was released and issued his own report to “share the truth.” During a news conference Friday, Cuomo’s personal lawyer Rita Glavin called the investigation “one-sided” and said the governor was “ambushed,” though in an interview with MSNBC she said Cuomo “doesn’t dispute some of the allegations.”

As for David, he has maintained in a statement to NBC News that he wasn’t aware of allegations of sexual harassment against the governor during his time as chief counsel. 

Civil rights advocates and at least one elected official have called on David to resign. 

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

In a statement released Monday morning, HRC Board Chair Morgan Cox and HRC Foundation Board Chair Jodie Patterson announced that the foundation would hire the prominent outside law firm Sidley Austin LLP to investigate David’s actions, saying that his inclusion in the investigative report “is very concerning.”

“We commend the courage of the many survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment who have come forward, and give them our full support,” they said. “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.”    

They added that the boards of directors of both HRC and the HRC Foundation take the concerns of staff seriously.

“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,”Cox and Patterson said. “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.”

In a statement emailed to NBC News Monday, David said that he fully endorses the boards’ decision to conduct an independent review. 

“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,” said David, who became president of HRC two years ago this month. “I appreciate the open dialogue we are having and the support of so many across our organization.”

The attorney general’s report alleges that David provided a copy of documents about Boylan that the governor’s office later leaked to the press, but David said he was required to provide those documents as the governor’s chief counsel. He also denied the report’s allegation that he agreed to circulate the letter about Boylan.

“Multiple inaccuracies have been circulating and therefore this definitive review is important,” he said in the statement. “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.”

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