This article has been updated.
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David went into the organization’s weekly all-staff meeting last Tuesday triumphant, preparing to mark his two-year anniversary helming the country’s largest LGBTQ+ organization with a splashy media campaign and the announcement of a new, five-year contract.
But David’s trajectory at HRC has changed course over a tumultuous week after his name surfaced in an independent New York attorney general report finding that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women and retaliated against at least one for telling her story.
David was one of several current and former Cuomo aides who “engaged in a flurry of communication” to protect the governor as he faced his first public allegation of sexual harassment as his staff arranged to leak the accuser’s private personnel file to the media and drafted a letter or op-ed that impugned her credibility, the report found.
The HRC and HRC Foundation Board of Directors told staff on Monday morning that they have retained the law firm Sidley Austin to review whether David’s role in responding to the allegations against the governor “aligned with HRC’s mission and values,” according to emails shared with The 19th. Sidley Austin has worked with HRC in the past as part of a strategic litigation alliance.
The boards’ email acknowledges that it has been a “difficult” few days for HRC’s staff, “made all the more difficult because so many in the LGBTQ community are survivors of assault and harassment themselves.”
In a separate email sent at the same time, David said he would “fully endorse the decision of the boards” because “multiple inaccuracies have been circulating and therefore this definitive review is important.”
But David’s email — which, like his remarks in a tense, 90-minute meeting last week, focused on the logistics that he neither directly leaked the file that he handed over to Cuomo’s staff nor did he ultimately sign the letter — did seemingly little to reassure HRC staff already worried about the timeline of their leader’s communications with Cuomo staff.
“He’s missing the larger context outside his actions, which is what people are really upset about. He didn’t sign the letter but he helped review, edit and give guidance on it,” one HRC staff member said.
David and Jodie Patterson, chair of the HRC Foundation board, referred The 19th’s queries to outside spokespeople, one of whom confirmed the authenticity of Monday’s emails.
HRC officials said on matters related to David and Cuomo, the organization’s general counsel will report to the board chairs and not to the boards and president as they typically would under an established dual-reporting structure.
The 19th spoke with more than a dozen current and former HRC staffers, all of whom responded on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization on this issue and, in some cases, fear retaliation could jeopardize their jobs or professional reputations.
David joined HRC’s leadership in 2019 after eight years in the governor’s office, most recently serving as Cuomo’s chief counsel. As a former asylum seeker and the first Black man to lead HRC, he represented what the organization hoped would be a new era that centered conversations about racism, xenophobia and transphobia. Prior to David’s arrival, HRC was criticized as a White men’s club.
But “it can’t be on just one Black person, even if it’s the president, to change the whole culture and dynamic,” one former HRC staffer pointed out.
HRC had long navigated a tenuous relationship with the communities it aims to serve. The organization both enjoys and suffers from unparalleled influence, working closely with the Obama and Biden administrations on landmark LGBTQ+ policies, conducting some of the most in-depth polling on queer voters and sending lobbyists to the rural South to battle anti-trans bills. HRC is partially credited with giving the nation marriage equality in 2015.
But in 2007, a decision by HRC to pursue a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that excluded transgender protections shattered trust between HRC and its most marginalized constituents. Now, nearly 15 years later, HRC is still fumbling its way toward a reputation recovery in many LGBTQ+ circles.
Current and former HRC staff told The 19th in interviews and messages that the allegations relating to Cuomo involving David were wrenching because they undermined more than a decade of work to rebuild trust within HRC and with its partner organizations, and potentially threaten the LGBTQ+ movement as a whole.
They described how HRC’s own work environment can be toxic at times, and how leaders sometimes dabble in the same type of bullying that investigators said pervaded Cuomo’s circle. While the dynamic long predates David’s leadership, women, people of color, transgender and gender-expansive people continued to be sidelined within the organization, and the situation only nominally improved during his tenure, they said.
“HRC strives to have an open, inclusive culture where all staff feel safe and respected, and have the opportunity to grow. In recent years, we have taken active and deliberate steps to hire and retain a workforce that better represents all the communities we serve,” Chief Operating Officer Joni Madison told The 19th in a statement.
The Cuomo report has exposed the organization’s fault lines, with longtime leaders and junior staffers often divided. Staff said they were uncomfortable going directly to the board or other members of HRC’s leadership about concerns related to David’s assistance to Cuomo because they feared professional ramifications.
While serving as president of the HRC last December, David sent Cuomo adviser Richard Azzopardi a personnel file on Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo staffer who was the first to publicly accuse Cuomo of harassment. The file, which David had retained after leaving the governor’s office, was sent two days after the governor’s secretary alerted David and others to Boylan’s tweets calling the governor “one of the biggest abusers of all time,” the attorney general’s report found.
Boylan’s personnel file was shared with the press. Then, a few days later, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa sought David’s input — along with Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund co-founder Roberta Kaplan, among others — on a letter that “denied the legitimacy of Ms. Boylan’s allegations, impugned her credibility, and attacked her claims as politically motivated,” the report found. (DeRosa resigned on Sunday night, and Kaplan resigned from Time’s Up on Monday.)
David told the investigators that he would not sign the letter, which was never published, but DeRosa testified that David was willing to sign it if they needed him to, and that he read drafts of the letter that was circulated to former Cuomo staff members for their signatures, the report found. David and Kaplan have both said they would not back any effort to undermine a survivor’s credibility. In his email to staff on Monday, David said he “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,” he wrote.
The 165-page report was published during HRC’s Tuesday staff meeting lauding David’s achievements. That night, as details emerged, David sent an email invitation for another all-staff meeting the next day to address his role in Cuomo’s office’s attempts to counter Boylan’s allegations by leaking her private personnel file to the media and drafting and circulating the letter.
Some staff went into the meeting expecting David to announce his resignation. Instead, over 90 tense minutes, David defended his actions and told staff he had done nothing wrong. The campaign celebrating his anniversary would be delayed, he said, as would the announcement he had signed a new contract. “I will be responding to this, not HRC,” he assured them.
But, as David was still speaking, a Washington Blade story published on Wednesday that included a statement from HRC board chair Morgan Cox and Patterson, who said both boards had “full confidence in Alphonso David as president of the organization.”
Many HRC staffers were aghast that as David promised one course of action, the boards took the opposite. One former HRC staffer called the chain of events an “astounding misstep” on behalf of the organization’s leadership.
David told HRC employees in the all-staff call he organized on Wednesday that he did not know what Cuomo’s office planned to do with the file on Boylan that he had given them.
“No allegation was reported to me. And I was not involved in any way in covering anything up, because I was not aware of it,” David said in the call, a recording of which was obtained by The 19th.
One statement submitted anonymously on the call was read aloud by HRC’s general counsel: “Alphonso, we will band together and take this to the board to request your resignation. Are you willing to take down our org with you?”
“You’re basically asking me to resign for conduct that I didn’t know about. Never saw. Was never reported to me,” he said.
The former and current HRC staffers said fallout from the Cuomo scandal has put internal divisions on display over the past week, with women and transgender employees generally seeking a stronger response from management to David’s involvement.
“I just think there is a long history of HRC not dealing with inappropriate behavior. Whether that’s sexual harassment of young staff, to bullies, to inappropriate conversations,” a former senior staffer said.
By Friday, a petition was circulating asking for David’s resignation. HRC staff said they were reluctant to sign it as it was unclear who originated the document or if they would face blowback for joining the movement. One staffer said if they were assured job protection, they estimated that at least 40 people would sign on, they said.
By HRC’s own count, 17 anti-LGBTQ+ laws had been enacted by state legislatures as of early May, making it the worst year for such legislation since 2015. There are dozens more states considering bills that would curb the participation of trans athletes in high school sports and more. Current and former HRC staffers said they worried David’s involvement advising Cuomo could disrupt or undermine the organization’s work at a critical time.
On Friday, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, to ask that his concerns about David’s involvement with Cuomo be entered into the record, along with his March testimony on the Equality Act, which would extend non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people and women.
“For there to be a large-scale loss of faith in the organization could have severe consequences,” one former HRC staffer said.
Another former senior staffer said separately of David: “I think the staff can’t fathom why, if it’s going to hurt the organization for him to stay, why he would stay?”
Disclosure: Human Rights Campaign has been a sponsor of The 19th.