Turmoil Was Brewing at Time’s Up Long Before Cuomo

The prominent anti-harassment charity, criticized for its relationship with the former New York governor, is facing an identity crisis over its ties to those in power.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Nearly four years ago, moving with resolve after the global #MeToo explosion, some of the country’s most famous women formed a new charity, Time’s Up, to fight sexual harassment in the workplace. Their collective power, funds and aspirations offered the promise of real progress.

Now the organization is in an “existential crisis,” its vice chairwoman told the staff. A group of abuse victims said they felt betrayed. Some board members are privately questioning whether Time’s Up will survive.

The turmoil was set off by the sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Time’s Up ally, and revelations that his office had relied on the counsel of the group’s leaders as the accusations emerged.

Time’s Up was built on a bold premise: Ultra-connected women would pool their access and influence to push for gender equity. But even before the allegations against Mr. Cuomo, confusion and controversy had been building inside the group over its leadership’s ties — and help — to those in power, according to interviews with dozens of current and former board members, employees and other advocates, as well as a review of internal documents.

Image

Time’s Up ribbons at the 2019 Golden Globes.

Some of them feared that the high-level connections at the heart of the group’s strategy compromised its credibility, or made the powerful more of a priority than the ordinary women Time’s Up was meant to help.

“We have, obviously, a broken-trust moment and a real examination, after three and a half years, of whether this is the right way to work,” Tina Tchen, the chief executive, said in an interview. She and others are wondering whether the group’s model can still be tenable. “I’m open to the answer.”

Where to draw the line has come up again and again. In spring 2020, Ms. Tchen, an Obama administration veteran, helped hold back a letter from women’s groups prodding Joseph R. Biden Jr. to respond more quickly to a sexual misconduct allegation — even as she raised funds for his campaign as a private citizen.

About the same time, after Ms. Tchen discussed a new for-profit consulting arm that could allow her and others to advise corporations, including those facing abuse accusations, board and staff members grew concerned, according to meeting notes. The plan never moved forward.

In the small, underfunded world of women’s charities, Time’s Up was an outlier. Its founders included Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey; Ms. Tchen, its leader since 2019, had been Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. The organization’s connections, and $24 million GoFundMe campaign, were its selling point. But some of the group’s power players — including Roberta Kaplan, who stepped down this month as chairwoman in the Cuomo fallout — became entangled in questions about conflicts of interest.

Ms. Kaplan, a lawyer whose firm represents a top Cuomo aide accused of trying to discredit an alleged victim, was more involved in the administration’s response than previously reported, according to her and others. She provided names of potential defense lawyers for the governor, discussed with an aide what a key Time’s Up statement would say and shared it with his office before it became public.

The group underestimated “how difficult it would be to work with politicians and corporations without coming up against something that’s going to stain you,” Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo and a member of Time’s Up’s extended board, said in an interview.

Time’s Up helped deliver legislative victories in New York, strengthening anti-harassment provisions and lengthening the statute of limitations for rape; prodded Hollywood to hire more female directors and executives; and urged corporations like McDonald’s to improve their policies. Its most significant achievement may be the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a separate arm that connects people with workplace misconduct claims, especially low-income women, to lawyers and media strategists.

Jay Ellwanger, a Texas lawyer who has represented multiple women through the fund, said it allowed “a woman who doesn’t have the quote-unquote power and connections” to feel that “she can fight for herself and for others.” Since 2018, it has referred over 4,800 people to lawyers and funded 256 cases.

But at the main organization, current and former staff members said in interviews, priorities seemed to shift quickly. As the effort to combat harassment expanded to equal pay initiatives and other targets, some believed that Time’s Up lacked a clear road map to its policy goals. And, they said, staff members’ focus was often scattered as they were drawn into ancillary issues, the promotion of board members’ pet projects or public relations campaigns on unrelated topics.

Image

Tina Tchen, the Time’s Up chief executive, is a White House veteran with connections to President Biden, himself accused of misconduct. Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times

Megan Malloy, who worked at Time’s Up for 13 months as a digital strategist, said she left heartbroken, feeling the organization had fallen short.

“There’s never been so much power behind addressing issues like sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Ms. Malloy said.

But in practice, “it felt like we were there to burnish the reputations of very powerful women.” And not, she added, “to actually do programmatic work that would materially change the lives of survivors.”

The group is hiring a consultant to examine what happened and clarify its strategy going forward, according to a spokeswoman, and several board members said they were determined to defend and reboot the organization.

“The fact that Time’s Up has become viewed as a receptacle for and the focus of men trying to cover up their obscene behaviors is exhausting to me,” said the producer Shonda Rhimes, a co-founder and major backer of the organization, in a statement. “Saving men, especially predatory men, is not on Time’s Up agenda,” she said, adding that she strongly supported the organization and Ms. Tchen.

In June last year, employees alerted Ms. Tchen to a set of urgent concerns about the organization’s mission and culture. “We are not close to the women we want to help,” one told colleagues, according to notes obtained by The New York Times.

“What is our theory of change?” they asked.

Trouble in Albany

As the first accusations against Mr. Cuomo emerged last winter, one woman who had worked in the governor’s office was uneasy. She said she’d had uncomfortable experiences with Mr. Cuomo, which she’d shared with her new bosses at a state agency.

Fearing retaliation, she found a lawyer, Zoe Salzman, who sought help from the Legal Defense Fund, which is administered separately from Time’s Up through the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. The fund paid for her lawyer as the woman, who declined to disclose her full name publicly, told her story to investigators.

As the scope of misconduct allegations began to expand, the Cuomo administration was also conferring with the leaders of Time’s Up more than previously known.

Ms. Kaplan and Ms. Tchen were both drawn in. They had met as young lawyers, had singular resumes — Ms. Kaplan had helped win the fight for gay marriage — and were so close that they had tried to start a business offering workplace trainings in 2019, building on their Time’s Up experience.

Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide and an ally on the sexual misconduct legislation, consulted with Ms. Kaplan on a proposed, and now notorious, Op-Ed smearing Mr. Cuomo’s first accuser. Ms. Kaplan read the draft to Ms. Tchen, and both say they advised against disparaging the woman.

As the Cuomo administration pushed to choose its own investigator, Ms. DeRosa asked Ms. Kaplan if she would lead the inquiry, or even represent Mr. Cuomo, according to several people involved. She declined, but Ms. Kaplan weighed in on one candidate to lead the investigation, told the administration it would have to be as independent as possible and provided names of potential defense lawyers. She also discussed with Ms. DeRosa what a Time’s Up public statement might say about how the investigation should be conducted.

Image

Melissa DeRosa, an aide to the governor who worked to discredit one of his accusers.Credit…Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The group’s leaders settled on a weak call for Mr. Cuomo to appoint his own independent investigator. Ms. Kaplan sent the statement to Ms. DeRosa before it went public, according to Ms. Tchen and others.

But ultimately, Mr. Cuomo lost the fight, and the state attorney general produced a devastating report that prompted his resignation this month.

Asked why Time’s Up was going back and forth with Ms. DeRosa, Ms. Tchen said: “I thought we were dealing with an office that wanted to do the right thing.”

Instead of backing away from Mr. Cuomo’s circle, Ms. Kaplan drew closer. As federal investigators examined claims that his administration had hid data about Covid-19 in nursing homes, her firm took on Ms. DeRosa as a client.

Ms. Kaplan said Ms. Tchen and others knew she was dealing with the governor’s office in her capacity as chairwoman. “Nothing I did here was rogue for Time’s Up,” she said in an interview. “Everything was discussed and expected and fully authorized,” she said, including representing Ms. DeRosa.

Ms. Tchen, however, said she thought Ms. Kaplan was not acting in her chairwoman role while conferring with the Cuomo administration, and was not aware that her firm was also representing Ms. DeRosa in the attorney general’s inquiry.

Image

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Cuomo episode exposed some of the limitations and conflicts that had plagued Time’s Up from the beginning.

Neither Ms. Tchen nor Ms. Kaplan had ever worked at a nonprofit, nor did they set out to run a typical one. Frustrated with the slow pace of progress, Time’s Up aimed for a more “grass-tops” approach by influencing leaders and shifting minds culturally.

“The fastest way to change,” Ms. Tchen said, “is actually for leaders inside organizations to decide they want to do the right thing, rather than waiting for Congress.”

And they did not take some of the steps that help prevent nonprofits from blurring ethical lines. Board members raised potential conflicts with Ms. Tchen, several of them said, and were expected to fill out forms listing any financial issues. But those didn’t address the more complicated question of how webs of relationships could sway a response to a harassment allegation.

When it came to doing political work outside the organization, “we didn’t have formal conflict policies,” said Hilary Rosen, a Washington strategist and co-founder. “We had a level of trust among each other.”

The Path to Governor Cuomo’s Resignation

Card 1 of 6

Plans to resign. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said that he would resign from office amid a sexual harassment scandal. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will be sworn in to replace him.

Multiple claims of sexual harassment. Eleven women, including current and former members of his administration, have accused Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. An independent inquiry, overseen by the New York State attorney general, corroborated their accounts. The report also found that he and aides retaliated against at least one woman who made her complaints public.

Nursing home Covid-19 controversy. The Cuomo administration is also under fire for undercounting the number of nursing-home deaths caused by Covid-19 in the first half of 2020, a scandal that deepened after a Times investigation found that aides rewrote a health department report to hide the real number.

Efforts to obscure the death toll. Interviews and unearthed documents revealed in April that aides repeatedly overruled state health officials in releasing the true nursing home death toll for months. Several senior health officials have resigned in response to the governor’s overall handling of the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout.

Will Cuomo still be impeached? The State Assembly opened an impeachment investigation in March. Leaders said the Assembly would finish its inquiry and issue a report with its findings. But the Assembly’s speaker has argued that lawmakers do not have the constitutional authority to impeach Mr. Cuomo once he leaves office.

Looking to the future. Mr. Cuomo said on Tuesday that his resignation would take effect in 14 days, and that Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, would be sworn in to replace him. She will be the first woman in New York history to occupy the state’s top office.

Allegiances in Washington

The situation at Time’s Up was especially delicate because several leaders had second lives in the Biden campaign. Ms. Rosen, a partner in a top public relations firm, helped organize a group called “Vote for Her” to support Kamala Harris’s nomination as vice president. Jennifer Klein, another top executive, was a co-chairwoman of a campaign policy committee. When Mr. Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Ms. Tchen helped host fund-raisers.

Some board members and employees became concerned about the perception that the organization — and by extension, #MeToo — was aligned with Mr. Biden.

“This is not an issue that should be political or should be partisan, and it undermines the credibility of the organization when they make it so,” said Ms. Malloy, the former staff member.

Then Tara Reade, a former Biden aide, accused him of inappropriately touching her decades ago; she later claimed that he had sexually assaulted her. While Mr. Biden’s campaign denied the allegations, he stayed publicly silent. So did Time’s Up.

In April last year, several women’s rights groups began crafting a public letter calling on him to address Ms. Reade’s account. “Vice President Biden has the opportunity, right now, to model how to take serious allegations seriously,” one draft of the letter said.

Ms. Tchen conveyed that she wanted the groups to hold off, according to people inside and outside. She was in contact with the Biden campaign; he would soon respond, and they should not get in the way, she said. (A spokeswoman said Ms. Tchen opposed the letter because the call to action wasn’t clear enough.)

Mr. Biden finally spoke about the allegations in a MSNBC interview on May 1, denying them. That day, Ms. Tchen appeared on the same network, commending him for his transparency, and Time’s Up released a complimentary statement. That evening, she joined a Biden fund-raising event online with other Obama administration alumni.

While some board members and allies defended her political activities, others were asking whose interests the Time’s Up leaders were putting first: Ms. Reade’s, or Mr. Biden’s?

Soon, Time’s Up solicited the help of Global Strategy Group, a consulting and polling firm, to survey voters’ attitudes about sexual harassment. A PowerPoint-style report, with data on how voters think about #MeToo issues, later appeared on the Time’s Up website.

But a private version obtained by The Times includes extra slides on people running for office. One of them, with a box titled “What Candidates Need to Say,” offers a model script. Time’s Up and the polling firm both said they did not share the slides with anyone else — including one of the firm’s longtime clients, Mr. Cuomo.

In interviews, the group’s leaders said they were trying to determine how accused men could respond in a way that doesn’t shame women. But when The Times consulted other pollsters and leaders from women’s organizations about the slides, many had the same question: Why did Time’s Up even take on that task?

Resignations and NDAs

At the 2018 Golden Globes, Ms. Winfrey helped introduce Time’s Up with a rousing speech about survivors of sexual misconduct, including her own mother and “the women whose names we’ll never know.” But soon the initial moral clarity of focusing on victims gave way to messy disputes.

In 2019 and 2020, Time’s Up found itself embroiled in a back-and-forth between Ms. Winfrey, a major funder, and the directors and subjects of the documentary “On the Record,” who detailed rape accusations against the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Ms. Winfrey was initially a producer of the film, then unexpectedly backed out.

Another fissure opened this March, after a board member, Dr. Esther Choo, was mentioned in a lawsuit for allegedly failing to report sexual harassment at her hospital. Members of Time’s Up Healthcare, which seeks to protect women in that field, pushed for Dr. Choo, one of their leaders, to step back.

But Time’s Up executives believed she was included in the suit to draw publicity. Ms. Tchen urged members to rally to her defense, and Ms. Kaplan announced that she was representing Dr. Choo. About half the health care division volunteers — 20 physicians, psychologists and nurses — quit.

Things quickly grew heated. “We care more about the crazy, insane members of Times Up Healthcare???” Ms. Kaplan railed in an email obtained by The Times.

Dr. Choo, who was not a defendant in the suit, would not comment; the suit later settled. Ms. Kaplan said she feared that having Dr. Choo step down because of an “unsupportable allegation” could leave other Time’s Up members vulnerable to being forced out over false claims.

That crisis occurred at the same time as the Cuomo allegations; staff turnover had already been high. Some employees who remained felt their complaints about the group’s drifting strategy had not been addressed. “Everything we did was because we thought it benefited women and the movement at large,” said Rebecca Goldman, the former chief operating officer. That was the case whether they were pushing policy or “responding to cultural moments,” she said.

Some of the roughly 30 staff members also felt muzzled. Time’s Up had made its employees sign nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements — often required by nonprofits, though the organization had otherwise opposed them. (Ms. Tchen said the documents were only meant to protect victims’ stories. On Friday, after inquiries from a reporter, she said they would be revised.)

Image

The actress Lynn Whitfield spoke at a Time’s Up event this month during the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.Credit…Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival

In recent weeks, Ms. Tchen has been on an apology tour, posting a searching letter and meeting with the board, the staff and other women’s groups. In the interview, Ms. Tchen said she was “absolutely cognizant” that some people “felt betrayed by things I have done,” adding, “There’s nothing I ever wanted to do to cause more pain for survivors.”

Ms. Burke, the #MeToo founder, said the organization ought to sever some ties, even if that meant fewer wins. “To do this work your integrity has to be beyond reproach,” she said.

She also asked the critics for patience. “Time’s Up is young, and this problem is old.”

Reporting was contributed by Shane Goldmacher, Nicholas Confessore, Lisa Lerer and Tiffany Hsu.

Leave a Reply