The New York Attorney General's sexual harassment investigation into Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised criticisms of a prominent LGBTQ advocate, who is accused of participating in efforts to discredit the governor's alleged victims.
That advocate, Alphonso David, the president of Human Rights Campaign, is now facing demands that he resign.
The organization describes itself as "America's largest civil rights organization working to advance LGBTQ equality," and has become the most influential such group in the country.
David previously served as a counselor to Cuomo, where he acted as the New York Democrat's "chief counsel and principal legal advisor," according to his biography.
In 2019, David was named the President of Human Rights Campaign, or HRC. He is the first person of color to hold that role. But even after leaving government, the Attorney General's investigation details how David remained in close contact with Cuomo's advisers as they responded to multiple women's accusations of sexual harassment. David, the report states, sent one accuser's confidential personnel files to a Cuomo adviser. That adviser then leaked the accuser's files to the media, according to the report. In another instance described in the report, David took part in discussions about a draft letter or op-ed that would attack the accuser's credibility, and gathered signatures for the effort. David did not sign the letter, and it was never publicized.
Cuomo's team's actions violated state and federal laws against retaliation, the Attorney General found. Cuomo has denied all wrongdoing, as has David. HRC did not respond to NPR's multiple requests for an interview with David.
David's appearances in the report have raised questions about his continued role with HRC from both the political left and right. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who is openly gay, told NPR in an interview that she would not accept support from HRC unless David stepped down. The Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBTQ group, also called on David to resign. An attorney for Lindsey Boylan, one of Cuomo's accusers, told NPR that Boylan plans to sue Cuomo for retaliation and that Boylan could potentially name David as a co-defendant.
In recent years, the group and its associated foundation have spent more than $60 million in support of its mission. At times, the group has also endorsed political candidates. In a somewhat controversial move, HRC endorsed Cuomo in his 2018 Democratic primary contest against liberal challenger Cynthia Nixon, who herself identifies as queer.
Sexual harassment is a major concern for LGBTQ Americans. In a 2017 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 51 percent of LGBTQ people surveyed reported that "they or an LGBTQ friend or family member have been sexually harassed." HRC has said it advocates "to support all survivors of sexual assault."
In response to the allegations in the Attorney General's report, HRC sent a statement to the Washington Blade newspaper, in which the group's board of directors stood by David, and noted that they had recently extended his contract as the group's president an additional five years. David also denied any wrongdoing to the Blade, which covers LGBTQ news.
After the report was made public, David tweeted that Cuomo should resign. That tweet did not address his own appearances in the Attorney General's investigative report.
After reading the AG’s devastating report that concluded Gov. Cuomo engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, in violation of both federal and state law, he should resign.— Alphonso David (@AlphonsoDavid) August 3, 2021
The Alleged Sexual Harassment Of Lindsey Boylan
The Attorney General's investigation most prominently notes David's alleged role in three instances. Two of them relate to sexual harassment allegations by a woman named Lindsey Boylan.
Boylan is a former Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Advisor to the Governor, and her time in government overlapped with David's.
Boylan told investigators that on multiple occasions Cuomo made inappropriate comments to her, touched her body, and kissed her without her consent. During one work trip, the governor allegedly suggested that they play "strip poker." Boylan also said that at one point, while she was at the Executive Mansion, Cuomo's dog started to scratch at her. The governor allegedly said to Boylan in response, "Well, if I was the dog, I'd mount you too." Cuomo has denied making these comments. The Attorney General's investigation found Boylan's testimony credible.
Boylan told investigators that Cuomo created a toxic work environment that "was set up to feed the predator." She called the experience "deeply humiliating."
In 2018, Boylan had unrelated conflicts with co-workers, who complained about Boylan's conduct in the workplace. The report states that David, who was counsel for the governor at the time, set up a "counseling session" to discuss the issues. At that meeting, Boylan decided to voluntarily resign. David wrote a memo about that meeting and included it with other files regarding Boylan marked "privileged and confidential," according to the Attorney General's report.
At that time, Boylan had not gone public with the allegations of sexual harassment.
Instance One: The Leaking Of Confidential Files
In December 2020, Boylan started tweeting about Cuomo, and accused him of creating a toxic work environment. In one tweet from Dec. 9, she said he would "go down as one of the biggest abusers of all time."
That same day, and in response to Boylan's tweet, the report states, one of Cuomo's advisers texted David and requested Boylan's personnel file.
"Alphonso I need to see her full file," the adviser allegedly wrote.
The report says that David responded that the personnel documents were in possession of the state, and provided the name of the person who would have it.
But it turns out that David had also kept a copy of records related to his counseling of Boylan, even after leaving government, the Attorney General's investigators found. And on Dec. 11, David allegedly sent his copy of the records - labeled "confidential" - to another Cuomo adviser.
Two days later, Boylan tweeted that Cuomo "sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched."
Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched.— Lindsey Boylan (@LindseyBoylan) December 13, 2020
I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks. Or would it be both in the same conversation? This was the way for years.
That's when Cuomo's allies began to retaliate, according to Anne L. Clark, a lawyer who helped lead the Attorney General's investigation.
"Rather than [making] any effort to determine if the governor had engaged in a pattern of sexually harassing behavior, a team of senior staffers, former staffers, and outside confidantes with no official title or role mobilized to try to attack and neutralize Ms. Boylan," said Clark at a press conference announcing the results of the investigation.
The same day Boylan accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, a Cuomo adviser began sending the confidential files to reporters in order to undermine her credibility, the investigation found. Several outlets, such as the Associated Press and the New York Post, published details from those files, which included references to unrelated complaints about Boylan's own conduct.
Instance Two: A Letter Attacking Boylan's Credibility
Days after Boylan's confidential files were leaked to media outlets, Cuomo and his advisers also began drafting a letter to rebut her allegations, according to the investigation. "The letter denied the legitimacy of Ms. Boylan's allegations, impugned her credibility, and attacked her claims as politically motivated," the Attorney General's investigation states.
The report states that the letter was drafted, at least in part, by Cuomo himself, though it was supposed to be signed by former members of his staff - people like Alphonso David.
David told Cuomo's team that "he was not signing the letter but was willing to reach out to others to see if they would sign it," according to his testimony to investigators. Even though David told investigators he did not know whether the letter's claims were accurate, the report states that he "agreed to read it and convey its substance to other former employees to see if they would sign it."
Ultimately, the report found, Cuomo's advisers never publicly released the letter, though "more than a dozen" people saw copies, including a reporter from the New York Post.
"Both federal and state law prohibit an employer from taking any action that would dissuade a reasonable employee or former employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination," said attorney Anne Clark regarding the investigation's findings. "Under that standard, the confidential release of internal records to the press, and the dissemination of the letter disparaging Ms. Boylan constituted retaliation."
Attorneys for Gov. Cuomo have argued that neither the release of personnel records nor the drafting of the letter constitutes retaliation. Instead, Cuomo's lawyers argue that Boylan made the allegations in order to raise her profile for her political aspirations.
Jill Basinger, Boylan's attorney, disputed that characterization, and condemned both the release of the records and the drafting of the letter.
"They just wanted to dirty her up," Basinger said. "And that is literally a page out of the harasser's playbook."
Instance Three: Discussions Of A "Surreptitious" Recording
The third alleged incident that relates to David involves a former state employee identified in the report only by her first name, Kaitlin.
Kaitlin told investigators that during her time in government, Cuomo "often made comments about her appearance, as well as the appearance of others." She also described multiple uncomfortable interactions with the governor that took place before she transferred to a different government job in order to have less contact with Cuomo.
In Dec. 2020, when Lindsey Boylan tweeted that Cuomo had sexually harassed her, Kaitlin publicly supported her online. That got the attention of Cuomo's advisers, investigators found.
A former Cuomo staff member, who investigators do not identify, called Kaitlin and "surreptitiously recorded the call," the report states.
The report goes on to say that David was "involved in the discussions about calling and recording the call between the former staff member and Kaitlin." The investigation does not provide additional detail about what David may have said during those discussions. David told the Blade, "in that instance, it was simply asking me, in my role as a former counsel what the law was."
Responses To The Report
In a statement to the Washington Post, David contended that he had no choice but to share Boylan's personnel files with Cuomo's advisers. "By law, I am required to provide my former client, New York State, with any documents with regard to my representation," he stated.
He also emphasized the fact that he did not ultimately sign on to the letter that attempted to rebut Boylan's allegations.
The head of HRC's board stated that they "have full confidence in Alphonso David as president of the organization," while noting that they had extended David's contract by five years.
Those statements have not satisfied critics of David's alleged conduct.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told NPR that the allegations in the report were "really upsetting to see." Nessel is the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Michigan, and said she had worked with HRC for years. That made reading the investigation even more troubling.
"It makes me concerned as to whether Mr. David can continue to effectively represent women," said Nessel, "if he feels as though it's appropriate to use his position in order to aid and abet a governor, who has been accused of really rampant sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace."
Charles Moran, managing director of the conservative LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans, told NPR in an interview that this decision, "really calls into question the best judgment of that individual and the organization that employs him."
Moran accused HRC of hypocrisy given its vocal support for victims of sexual harassment.
"This was a time for them to have some real serious introspection and have some accountability in their organization," Moran told NPR, "and HRC has just decided to sweep it under the rug."
Meanwhile, Lindsey Boylan is planning to take legal action.
"Her next step is to sue the governor and his co-conspirators for retaliation because she wants to make a very, very clear point that retaliating is not OK," Boylan's attorney, Jill Basinger, told NPR.
Basinger said she and Boylan are still evaluating all the evidence, but said the "co-conspirators" could include people both inside and outside of New York State government.
When asked if David could be among those people Boylan sues, Basinger said, "Nothing is off the table."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing an impeachment inquiry and now, as announced this week, a criminal complaint based on allegations of sexual harassment from 11 women. The state's investigation into Cuomo's behavior has also entangled one of his former advisers, the president of the influential LGBTQ rights group Human Rights Campaign, who denies any wrongdoing. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach reports.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Not that long ago, Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, was singing the praises of his former boss.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALPHONSO DAVID: It is my pleasure to introduce the state's greatest advocate for the LGBTQ community and my dear friend, Andrew Cuomo.
DREISBACH: That was February 2020. Now, since the investigation into sexual harassment by New York's attorney general, both Cuomo and David have faced demands that they resign - Cuomo from the governorship, and David from his prominent role at the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the country. Both are refusing to step down.
Here's where Alphonso David fits into that investigation. Back when David worked as a legal adviser for Cuomo in 2018, he compiled confidential personnel files on a state employee named Lindsey Boylan. Boylan was having a conflict with co-workers, not related to sexual harassment, and she decided to resign. Later in 2020, Boylan went public with an explosive allegation. She tweeted that Cuomo had sexually harassed her. At one point, she said Cuomo kissed her without her consent. Another time, he suggested they should play strip poker. Cuomo denies this. Anne Clark worked on the attorney general's investigation, and she says at that moment, Cuomo team scrambled.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANNE CLARK: A team of senior staffers, former staffers and outside confidants with no official title or role mobilized to attack and try to neutralize Ms. Boylan by sharing disparaging information with the press.
DREISBACH: By this time, David had left his government job. He'd become president of Human Rights Campaign. But the report says he had kept some of Lindsey Boylan's confidential personnel records. And it says, when asked, David sent them to Cuomo's team, and that team leaked Boylan's records to the media. The report says Cuomo and his advisers also drafted a letter attacking Boylan. David did not sign that letter, and it was never sent, but the report says he did help gather signatures. Lindsey Boylan's attorney, Jill Basinger, told me she was surprised by just how many people in and out of government were allegedly involved in this effort.
JILL BASINGER: It's really horrifying to think of the amount of power that was put together to attack Lindsey.
DREISBACH: The report says that Alphonso David was also part of discussions about surreptitiously recording another woman who accused Cuomo of acting inappropriately. Remember; all of this allegedly happened while David was leading the Human Rights Campaign. David has denied all wrongdoing. He said he was legally required to share those records with Cuomo's team and that he was unaware of sexual harassment claims at the time. Now David is himself calling for Cuomo to resign but says he plans to stay put. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says that's a problem. She's a Democrat and openly gay, and she says she will no longer accept any support from HRC while David is president.
DANA NESSEL: I just don't see how I can be consistent with my personal values and continue to be affiliated with this organization as long as Mr. David remains president.
DREISBACH: Do you think he should resign?
NESSEL: Absolutely. Yes.
DREISBACH: Charles Moran is with the conservative LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans, and he agrees.
CHARLES MORAN: I mean, it really is a level of hypocrisy that you can't get away from, and it really diminishes what should be the important work of an organization like that.
DREISBACH: Lindsey Boylan's attorney told me she is now planning a lawsuit against Cuomo for illegal retaliation. When I asked if Boylan might also sue Alphonso David, she said nothing is off the table. Human Rights Campaign did not respond to our requests for comment.
Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.