A group of sexual assault survivors and victims, current and former Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund clients and former Time’s Up staffers has written an open letter to the gender rights organization’s board accusing the group of prioritizing “proximity to power over mission” in regard to its relationship with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The letter was sparked by the revelation in the Aug. 3 New York Attorney General’s report that Cuomo’s office sought advice from Time’s Up chief Tina Tchen and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund co-founder Roberta Kaplan on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations. Kaplan resigned from the Time’s Up board on Monday morning.
“I was saddened but not shocked [by the Cuomo revelation],” says Lauren Weingarten, who settled a sexual harassment case against CBS in January with the assistance of lawyers paid for by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “We come to Time’s Up when we’re at our most vulnerable and they clearly don’t have the backs of survivors.”
In interviews, signers of the letter point to other examples of Time’s Up aligning with powerful people over survivors, such as the group’s backing of major donor Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey dropped out as producer of the documentary about Russell Simmons accusers, On the Record, and the organization’s handling of allegations that co-founder and board member Esther Choo failed to report complaints of sexual harassment made by a co-worker at Oregon Health & Science University.
The letter calls for a third party investigation “illustrating the full extent to which Time’s Up board members and staff members have been approached by, offered advice to, or are representing perpetrators of harm” and a return of donations “by individuals and corporations that have active allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or are litigating in opposition to survivors.” The signers are also asking Time’s Up to supply detailed budgets and to form a survivor advisory council.
According to the report from Attorney General Letitia James, Cuomo asked an aide to seek Kaplan’s input on a letter his office drafted to rebut claims of sexual harassment leveled by former aide Lindsay Boylan. “Ms. Kaplan read the letter to the head of the advocacy group Times Up [sic], and both of them allegedly suggested that, without the statements about Ms. Boylan’s interactions with male colleagues, the letter was fine,” according to page 109 of the report. “[Cuomo aide Melissa] DeRosa reported back to the Governor that Ms. Kaplan and the head of Time’s Up thought the letter was okay with some changes, as did [Cuomo ally Steven] Cohen, but everyone else thought it was a bad idea.” (DeRosa resigned Sunday night).
Time’s Up had worked with the Cuomo administration in late 2019 to pass the “Time’s Up New York Safety Agenda” into law, which extended the statute of limitations for survivors of second- and third-degree rape. On Aug. 3, a spokesperson for Time’s Up told The Hollywood Reporter, “In December 2020, Tina was asked to give her perspective on a public response to Ms. Boylan’s allegations. Although Tina made no recommendations as to what he should do, she shared the stance Time’s Up has always taken in these matters. She was clear that any response coming from the Governor’s office addressing the allegations would be insufficient and unacceptable if it did not acknowledge the experiences of the women who came forward, and that it should in no way shame or discredit the women.”
Multiple signers of the letter say they believe the Attorney General’s report over Time’s Up’s version of events. “The leadership has done good work, but they are so convinced of their own righteousness that they believe they are immune to accountability,” says a former Time’s Up staffer, one of two who signed the letter anonymously. “For an organization that’s supposed to bring accountability to powerful people, it’s a massive missed opportunity to model for everybody else what taking accountability looks like. Instead of giving lawyerly responses when they’re called out, Time’s Up has the chance to issue a real apology, acknowledge their shortcomings, and make real changes.”
Current and former Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund clients who signed the letter describe frustration with the support they received from the group, and contrast that with the speed with which the organization comes to the aid of powerful allies like Cuomo. “I’ve nicknamed them Time’s Up, Eventually,” says one current client of the Legal Defense Fund, who says she was unable to get aid from the organization despite repeated inquiries, until she enlisted the help of a powerful actress. “There’s so much that could be done to improve the infrastructure. We victims have to hound them. ”
Activist and sexual assault survivor Alison Turkos organized the open letter a day after reading the Attorney General’s report. “They’re telling the world one thing publicly and behind closed doors treating survivors a different way,” Turkos says.
Signers of the letter say they have become disheartened by the group, which upon its founding in 2018 after the explosion of Harvey Weinstein allegations seemed like a powerful ally for sexual assault and harassment victims. “They need to look at how far they seem to have drifted from the founding mission,” says Marissa Hoechstetter, an advocate for sexual assault survivors. “What I see is a PR firm, not an organization interested in supporting survivors.”
There are are signs that Time’s Up has begun to hear the voices of frustrated advocates and victims. Kaplan, a prominent progressive lawyer who had worked on the legalization of gay marriage and represented DeRosa as a client, submitted her resignation to Time’s Up board of directors vice chair Nina Shaw on Aug. 9, saying that “an active litigation practice is no longer compatible with serving on the board.” “Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that even our apparent allies in the fight to advance women can turn out to be abusers… It has raised important questions about how and why Time’s Up does what it does, as well as demands in the part of advocates and staff for a kind of radical transparency.”
After the open letter was posted online, Time’s Up’s president and board released a statement that read in part, “At Time’s Up, our fundamental mission has always been to empower women. Empower us to demand safe workplaces, childcare support, pay equity and the dignity of respect and equality while achieving one’s career. We started this organization to help accelerate change. Most of our board members and a significant portion of our staff are also survivors of sexual harassment or sexual assault. We’ve worked to hold power accountable in board rooms, in the halls of government, and in organizations big and small, and we have felt uniquely capable of doing so because many of us have worked in those very institutions. We have never felt co-opted by that experience, only informed by it to try new strategies. And we are proud of that work and the change we have achieved. Yet, we recognize that this work has sometimes resulted in a lack of trust from the broader survivor community we serve and to which we also belong. We are looking within.”
The organization also said it was holding itself “accountable” and taking time to figure out how to do better.
“We hold ourselves accountable. The events of the last week have made it clear that our process should be evaluated and we intend to do just that,” the statement continued. “We need more transparency about our vision of change-making, and we need a more inclusive process to engage the broader survivor community, many of whom have spent years doing the noble work of fighting for women. We admire those who have been on this front line for years by choice or by their own story. As an entire organization we are going to take time and evaluate how we best do this collectively or as individuals. We are working with our team on how we show up in this next phase of this work. We will seek engagement with survivor communities, allies and critics alike. And we will share our intentions.”
The group also urged its “sisters and allies not to lose sight of the broader work and let a man’s treachery be overshadowed in any way. We do not ask for a pass. We ask for perspective.”
8:22 a.m. This story has been updated to note that Kaplan has resigned from her role with the Time’s Up board and with Time’s Up’s statement.