Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a well-known champion of the #MeToo movement, is facing questions about her office’s handling of a sexual harassment allegation.
A former female staffer who worked for Gillibrand alleges that the office mishandled a sexual harassment complaint that she filed last July, and provided an opaque response to retaliation the staffer says she faced after reporting the issue, according to a letter Politico’s Alex Thompson and Daniel Strauss obtained from the staffer. She ultimately resigned about three weeks after filing her initial complaint, despite having no other job set up at the time.
“I trusted and leaned on this statement that you made: ‘You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable,’” the woman wrote to Gillibrand and two other senior staffers on her final day. “Your office chose to go against your public belief that women shouldn’t accept sexual harassment in any form and portrayed my experience as a misinterpretation instead of what it actually was: harassment and ultimately, intimidation.”
Gillibrand’s office says it responded to the allegations of harassment and retaliation in an expedient fashion. As an aide told Vox, written documentation indicates that an investigation was launched into the sexual harassment claim within 42 minutes of its reporting. That investigation resulted in a demotion for Abbas Malik — the older male staffer facing allegations — but not a firing. The woman who resigned is in her mid-20s.
The office at the time interviewed seven current staffers but did not speak with former staffers whom the woman involved had recommended for the investigation.
Politico ultimately reached out to 20 former staffers, and these conversations revealed that Malik had a history of making misogynistic comments, including a joke about rape. After Politico revealed these allegations to Gillibrand’s office, a new review was conducted and Malik was subsequently fired.
“As I have long said, when allegations are made in the workplace, we must believe women so that serious investigations can actually take place, we can learn the facts, and there can be appropriate accountability. That’s exactly what happened at every step of this case last year. I told her that we loved her at the time and the same is true today,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
Gillibrand is known for her stance on #MeToo. But even she isn’t immune to Capitol Hill’s broken system to address harassment.
Gillibrand has been a leader on the issue of tackling harassment and spearheaded an effort to address sexual assault in the military. She’s been an active proponent in trying to improve the process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress, and called on Sen. Al Franken to resign after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct in 2017. Her focus on gender equality is a cornerstone of her presidential campaign.
Allegations of harassment in her office appeared to hit some of the same stumbling blocks that have plagued Congress’s handling of these subjects in the past, however.
Questions around the handling of sexual harassment allegations are not unique to Gillibrand’s office. Allegations touching a number of offices in the past year underscore the deeply broken system of sexual harassment reporting on Capitol Hill. Because every lawmaker’s office effectively functions as its own small business, harassment allegations have long been reviewed by top aides in the office rather than by an impartial investigator. This dynamic can lead to questions about a review’s potential bias, as well as questions about whether it’s comprehensive enough.
In this case, Malik had been with the senator’s office for much longer than the younger female staffer:
Malik had spent years by Gillibrand’s side as her driver — the senator officiated at his wedding — while the woman was a more recent hire and had significantly less stature in the office. He was accused not of physical harassment but of making unwanted advances and using demeaning language — behavior that can be easier to downplay and can require a higher level of diligence to get to the bottom of.
Last year, per Politico, the staffer had also considered reporting her allegations via the Congressional Office of Compliance, though she found the compliance office’s response unhelpful and was worried about the mandatory delays involved. At the time, staffers were required to undergo a 30-day “cooling off” period as part of the reporting process.
A law Congress passed to improve the harassment reporting process last year has increased lawmaker accountability and eliminated the cooling-off period, though offices still have relatively broad discretion when it comes to addressing internal harassment complaints.
This law is among the changes lawmakers have sought to make to ensure that staffers are protected when they file allegations about harassment.
Vox · by Li Zhou · March 11, 2019