The country’s largest LGBTQ rights advocacy group is in turmoil, facing a staff revolt over their president’s connection to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal.
In a tense all-staff meeting Wednesday, employees at the Human Rights Campaign laid into Alphonso David for nearly an hour and a half ― and asked him to resign several times. A person on the call shared a recording with HuffPost.
David was part of Cuomo’s tight inner circle, serving as his counsel from 2015 to 2019.
The New York attorney general’s office on Tuesday released a bombshell report detailing its investigation into allegations against the Democratic governor, and David appears to have played a significant role in Cuomo’s efforts to discredit his accusers. The report — which is based on conversations with 179 people and more than 74,000 pieces of evidence, including emails, texts, photos and audio files — concluded that Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women and violated federal and state laws.
David publicly called for Cuomo’s resignation in a tweet on Tuesday night. And during the conference call on Wednesday, David told staff that he hadn’t known about the sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo until the report came out.
“I read the report word for word, and it left me sickened to my stomach,” David said. “There’s nowhere in the report where it says that I was aware of any of these allegations.”
But HRC employees spent most of the call berating David over the report’s findings that tie him to Cuomo’s attempts to smear his accusers and publicly redeem himself.
“You are creating a toxic environment where partners can’t trust us,” charged one staffer. “When are you resigning?”
The report states, for example, that David provided a confidential file to Cuomo’s top aides, which they used to discredit one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan. The former Cuomo staffer has accused the governor of sexual harassment including an unsolicited kiss in his office and an invitation to play strip poker on a government airplane.
The report also states that David was involved in discussions about calling and secretly recording a conversation between a former Cuomo staffer and another Cuomo accuser named Kaitlin, who has not provided her last name. Kaitlin claims that in 2016, the governor grabbed her at a fundraiser and put her into a dance pose for photographers, and then two days later, had his staff reach out to her to offer her a job.
According to the report, David also initially declined to sign onto a letter aimed at discrediting Boylan and attacking her claims as political, but later told a Cuomo aide he would sign the letter “if we need him.” He also agreed to reach out to women who previously worked for Cuomo to try to get them to sign onto a statement saying positive things about the governor, per the report.
David was serving as president of HRC at the time of all these incidents.
Staffers on the call were given the option to submit questions anonymously, which allowed people to be blunt. Not a single person defended him.
“The first question is, what did Alphonso David personally know about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s harassment of multiple women?” began the moderator, reading from staff submissions. “Was Alphonso David complicit in any way in a cover-up of Gov. Cuomo’s sexual harassment of women?”
“I knew nothing. Nothing,” David replied. “No one ever disclosed allegations of harassment with me, either during or after I worked in state service. Also, I never saw anything.”
Another employee asked: “Do you plan to issue a public apology for agreeing to sign a draft [letter] disparaging an accuser while serving as president of HRC, per the AG’s report?”
David said the report shows that he declined to sign that letter, and said he never agreed to sign any iteration of the letter.
“What I did agree to do was to talk about my personal experience at the governor’s office,” he said. “But I never agreed to sign a letter that would disparage any employee or any survivor of harassment.”
For the next hour, staffers pummeled David with questions about why he turned over Boylan’s confidential file to a Cuomo aide while serving as president of HRC (he said he was legally obligated), why he had that file at all since he didn’t work for Cuomo anymore (he said his file was a copy, not the official state document), whether he stands by his actions (he does), and how to protect HRC’s brand amid the scandal (he vowed to personally respond to all Cuomo-related questions).
Staff also pressed David on why he should keep his job.
“Will you be resigning?” asked a staffer.
“Alphonso, we will band together and take this to the board to request your resignation,” said another employee. “Are you willing to take down our org with you?”
“I appreciate that perspective,” David said. “But I hope you can take a closer look at the report, because to suggest otherwise would mean I knew what the report said I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of this. So you’re basically asking me to resign for conduct I didn’t know about.”
But the resignation questions just kept coming.
“Is the best way to protect HRC’s brand for Alphonso to step down?” asked another staffer.
“Actually, I think one of the important lessons here is to highlight how harassment and discriminatory behavior hides in the darkness,” David said. “And how my experience can actually be used to effect change.”
An HRC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the anger on display in the meeting or about staffers calling for David’s resignation.
“Alphonso was a great lawyer today, ducking questions and reframing answers. Most people don’t think he answered questions directly. ... One person pointed out that there was no apology for the entire 90 minutes from him.”
HRC staffers may be upset with David and his ties to Cuomo, but the board is standing by him. It extended his contract for five more years on Tuesday, a decision that was already in the works but coincidentally landed on the same day the New York attorney general’s report dropped. David is the first person of color to serve as HRC’s president in its 40-year history.
“The Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation Boards have full confidence in Alphonso David as president of the organization,” HRC Foundation Board chair Jodie Patterson and HRC Board of Directors chair Morgan Cox said in a joint statement.
“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. “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.”
But the organization is already incurring damage from its decision. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is openly gay, tweeted Thursday that she won’t accept any campaign donations or support from HRC until David is out.
After the meeting ended, one person who was on the call told HuffPost that staffers came away feeling dissatisfied with David’s responses.
“Alphonso was a great lawyer today, ducking questions and reframing answers. Most people don’t think he answered questions directly. It’s how most people view him,” said this source, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “One person pointed out that there was no apology for the entire 90 minutes from him. Not an apology that HRC and its staff is caught up in something because of him and that he was sorry for that.”
“He is sometimes called Cuomo Jr.”