Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and her senior aides are pushing back against claims that the New York Democrat mishandled allegations of sexual harassment in her Senate office.
The situation could undercut Gillibrand’s efforts to be a champion of the #MeToo movement and of sexual assault and harassment accusers, something that the senator has made central to her 2020 presidential campaign.
A woman who worked in Gillibrand’s Senate office accused a senior staffer of sexual harassment in 2018. The accused staffer, Gillibrand military adviser Abbas Malik, was not fired for the allegations. The accuser told Gillibrand, her chief of staff Jess Fassler and general counsel Keith Castaldo that she was offering her resignation “because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was handled,” according to a letter obtained by CNN and first reported by Politico.
CNN has agreed not to name the accuser because of her desire to stay private.
Efforts to reach Malik were not successful and Politico reported that he did not respond to their requests for comment.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol Monday, Gillibrand said she told staffer who made the accusations that she was valued and loved.
“I told this employee at the time that she was loved, that we loved her. I deeply valued her. Which is why we took her allegations immediately, investigated them immediately and did a professional and thorough investigation,” Gillibrand said. “It was taken very seriously from the very beginning.”
She added, “I will always look to improve my processes with my new chief of staff, with her experience, we will look to see how we can be improve. But this investigation was thorough and professional and the allegations were taken seriously from the very first day.”
In a statement earlier in the day, Gillibrand defended her handling of the investigation.
“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,” she said in the statement.
“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.
Malik, who had not been dismissed in the wake of the allegations, was fired last week, according to Whitney Mitchell Brennan, Gillibrand’s Senate communications director.
“Recently, we learned of never-before-reported and deeply troubling comments allegedly made by this same individual,” Brennan said. “The office immediately began another investigation and interviewed relevant witnesses, which has led to the office terminating the employee from staff last week.”
A Gillibrand aide, who requested anonymity to speak openly about the issue, said the Senate office had launched an investigation into the initial sexual harassment claims within an hour of the allegations being made and the office had interviewed all current employees who were named during the course of the investigation as having additional information, in addition to other relevant current employees.
In total, the aide said, seven interviews were conducted and though the investigation concluded that inappropriate behavior had happened, the employee’s specific behavior did not meet the standard for sexual harassment.
The interviews with other current employees, the aide added, confirmed Malik had engaged in other unprofessional behavior that violated office policy - including derogatory comments about women’s appearances – and the military aide was given a final warning and was punished by having a promotion and salary increase taken away.
The investigation, the aide said, took roughly a week to complete and the office worked to accommodate the accuser during that time, including moving Malik from the suite he shared with the accused in the senator’s Russell Office Building office, canceling ongoing meetings so the accuser did not have to be in the same room with Malik and offering to allow the accuser to work from home.
After the investigation was completed, the accuser said Malik had threatened to retaliate against her for reporting the behavior. The aide said that Fassler, Gillibrand’s chief of staff and now campaign manager, “replied within four minutes regarding her complaint of retaliation saying it would be handled.” The subsequent investigation found there had been no retaliation, the aide said.
The process, however, was clearly not sufficient for the accuser, who resigned after the series of investigations.
“I have offered my resignation because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was handled,” the accuser wrote in the letter to Gillibrand, Fassler and Castaldo. “I hope your office will choose to handle cases like this with more sensitivity and understanding in the future.”
She added: “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.’ 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.”
The accuser also used her letter to outline how she reported her complaints, saying she first filed her complaint on July 25, 2018 and resolved it by July 30. The accuser goes on to say that she was told the office “did not find cause to fire Abbas for sexual harassment” and said the allegations were a “he said, she said” situation.
The Gillibrand aide told CNN that the office had asked the accuser to reconsider her resignation and discussed other jobs within the office she could take if she were interested.
The aide added that Gillibrand’s office had held three sexual harassment training sessions for the whole staff in the eight months preceding this woman’s claim.
Gillibrand’s rise to national prominence has been rooted in her handling of sexual assault, both in Congress and in the military. Gillibrand has been a primary force behind legislation that would remove sexual assault allegations from the chain of the command in the military, allowing a prosecutor, not the commander, to handle them.
Gillibrand was also the first senator to call on Sen. Al Franken to resign after allegations of unwanted touching and kissing were made against him. That decision has rankled some Democrats who were fond of the Minnesota Democrat, but Gillibrand has defended her call for Franken’s ouster, using it on the campaign trail to demonstrate how she is willing to stand up for victims even when the accused is a close friend.
“Enough was enough,” Gillibrand said earlier this year in Iowa. “Al Franken is entitled to whatever process wanted, if he wanted to say and wait six months for his ethics hearing. His decision was to resign. My decision was not to remain silent.”