Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the most outspoken advocates of the #MeToo movement who has made fighting sexual misconduct a centerpiece of her presidential campaign, spent last summer pressing legislators to update Congress’ “broken” system of handling sexual harassment.
At the same time, a mid-20s female aide to Gillibrand resigned in protest over the handling of her sexual harassment complaint by Gillibrand‘s office, and criticized the senator for failing to abide by her own public standards.
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In July, the female staffer alleged one of Gillibrand’s closest aides — who was a decade her senior and married — repeatedly made unwelcome advances after the senator had told him he would be promoted to a supervisory role over her. She also said the male aide regularly made crude, misogynistic remarks in the office about his female colleagues and potential female hires.
Less than three weeks after reporting the alleged harassment and subsequently claiming that the man retaliated against her for doing so, the woman told chief of staff Jess Fassler that she was resigning because of the office’s handling of the matter. She did not have another job lined up.
The woman was granted anonymity because she fears retaliation and damage to her future professional prospects.
“I have offered my resignation because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was handled,” the woman wrote to Gillibrand in a letter sent on her final day to the senator’s personal email account. Copied were general counsel Keith Castaldo and Fassler, who is now managing the senator’s presidential bid.
“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 woman wrote.
The senator and her staff never responded to the letter.
Gillibrand, who was not made available for an interview, issued a statement to POLITICO defending her office’s handling of the incident.
“As I have long said, 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. “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.”
Her office said no one responded to the letter because it determined that “engaging again on an already settled personnel matter was not the appropriate course of action.” It said the letter came after she’d given three weeks’ notice, “contained clear inaccuracies and was a major departure from the sentiments she shared with senior staff in her final days in the office.”
Since she left last summer, the woman has been doing part-time contract work. The male aide, Abbas Malik, kept his job.
Two weeks ago, however, POLITICO presented the office with its own findings of additional allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct by Malik. Among the claims were that he made a “joke” about rape to a female colleague — a person whom the office had failed to contact last summer despite repeated urgings by Malik’s accuser to reach out to the person.
Gillibrand’s office opened a new investigation and dismissed Malik last week. Malik did not respond to requests for comment.
The episode suggests a disconnect between the senator’s categorical public stance and her office’s private actions. It also points to broader problems with sexual harassment investigations on Capitol Hill: They are usually conducted internally by top aides with pre-existing relationships in the office rather than by an independent third party — a structure that Gillibrand has criticized in other institutions such as the military. The system can leave Capitol Hill aides ill-served, since those involved in an investigation have a motivation to protect the lawmaker.
And the case highlights the challenges of responding to alleged sexual harassment when it hits home, even for a leader on the issue. Malik had spent years by Gillibrand’s side as her driver — the senator officiated at his wedding — while the woman was a more recent hire and had significantly less stature in the office. He was accused not of physical harassment but of making unwanted advances and using demeaning language — behavior that can be easier to downplay and can require a higher level of diligence to get to the bottom of.
Gillibrand’s advisers said they took the woman’s claims seriously, consulted with Senate employment lawyers for guidance and punished Malik at the time for what they could substantiate. But after “a full and thorough investigation into the evidence, including multiple interviews with current employees who could have witnessed this behavior, the office concluded that the allegations did not meet the standard of sexual harassment,” the office said of its initial internal investigation.
That inquiry, however, left out key former staffers. The aides who led it — deputy chief of staff Anne Bradley and Castaldo — did not contact two former employees whom the woman said could corroborate and add to her allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct. Gillibrand’s office interviewed only current employees.
“Anyone doing a thorough investigation would contact any witness that had or was likely to have relevant information, particularly when there is a hostile working environment alleged,” said Les Alderman, an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment in the workplace and represented an alleged victim in a case against former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) that garnered national attention last year. “The idea that an employer is somehow restricted from contacting former employees who could shed light on the situation is laughable.”
POLITICO reached out to more than 20 former Gillibrand staffers to see if there was a pattern of behavior by Malik, including the two aides the woman specifically asked the office to contact.
One of those two former staffers said Malik often called her fat and unattractive to her face and made light of sexual abuse. She recalled one instance in which Malik remarked that a particular woman they were talking about “couldn’t get laid unless she was raped.” The person did not report that behavior at the time but now says she wishes she had.
Two more staffers who worked for Gillibrand said the woman’s claims of Malik’s inappropriate workplace behavior matched their own experiences. They said Malik regularly made misogynistic jokes, frequently appraised what they wore, disparaged the looks of other female staffers and rated the attractiveness of women who came in for interviews.
The office also dispensed with the allegations of Malik‘s retaliation without informing the woman of its conclusions or any disciplinary action.
Gillibrand’s office acknowledged it found evidence that Malik had made unspecified inappropriate comments and revoked his expected promotion, which would have come with a raise. It also moved his desk and gave him a final warning. This was not the first time the senator’s top aides dealt with an allegation of bad behavior by Malik: According to a firsthand witness of an incident in 2015, Malik confronted a fellow aide in the office. He got in the man’s face, pushed his desk and threatened to “fucking” hurt him, the witness said, describing the confrontation as “violent.”
But Fassler and Bradley told the woman that her claim of inappropriate advances was a case of “misinterpretation” and too much of a “he said, she said” to warrant Malik‘s dismissal, according to contemporaneous notes taken by the woman.
The office did not deny those terms were used but disputed that characterization of the investigation. “This case was never viewed as ‘he said, she said.’ Upon conclusion of the full and thorough investigation, it was determined that the evidence revealed employee misconduct that, while inappropriate, did not constitute sexual harassment,” the office said.
“When I had the courage to speak up about my harasser, I was belittled by her office and treated like an inconvenience,” the woman said of Gillibrand in an interview. “She kept a harasser on her staff until it proved politically untenable for her to do so.”
As part of her freelance work for an events production firm, she staffed the kickoff rally for one of Gillibrand’s rivals in the Democratic presidential primary. She has not done any other work for that or other presidential campaigns, and is not interviewing with any 2020 contenders.
‘Why do I love you! I should hate you!’
Malik became Gillibrand’s driver in 2011 after serving two tours in the Iraq War. He became such a constant presence in Gillibrand’s life — he had a set of keys to her home and often drove her children to school with her — that some staffers dubbed him “the keeper of her purse.” The office changed his title to “military adviser” in 2015 despite his responsibilities remaining largely the same.
Though she said she was put off by Malik’s comments about other female aides, the woman said her dealings with him had been generally cordial. But that changed when Gillibrand told him on July 10, 2018, that she wanted him to direct advance work for her future trips. All the details of the new job hadn’t been settled, but Abbas told the woman that he would be “in charge” of her position, she said.
“I have treated [A]bbas the same the entire year I have worked here,” the woman wrote in a detailed timeline of events that she later sent to Bradley, the deputy chief of staff. “It wasn’t until after this ‘promotion’ that he decided to hit on me.”
According to that timeline and documentation sent to Gillibrand’s office at the time, the alleged harassment started almost immediately after word of the planned promotion, with increasingly aggressive advances. In one late-night text message, Malik told her he now understood the meaning of the clown emoji — it meant “down to clown,” an innuendo for having sex from the movie “Blockers,” he elaborated the next morning.
On one day alone, July 13, she said Malik made four unwanted advances, which were all rebuffed. The first occurred alone in the office early in the morning when Malik told the woman he had a secret for her: Her boss had just quit.
“Ugh I shouldn’t have told you. You are totally going to tell people,” he said, according to her notes. “Why do I love you! I should hate you!”
After Malik prodded her for a secret of her own, she said Malik walked up to her desk and asked, “If we had met in a bar would it have happened for us?”
And at a birthday party for another staffer that evening, Malik told her privately that “I thought by debrief you meant you were hitting on me,” referencing an earlier text message.
She asked him if he was kidding. “No, I’m not kidding,” he responded. “[O]h wow ok no I was absolutely not hitting on you,” she replied, according to her timeline. He pressed two more times, prompting the woman to chide him in a text: “You’re married!!” He still sent a string of flirtatious texts later, including one with a clown emoji.
The woman said she tried to stay away from Malik the following week. But he began complaining that she was being mean to him because of his expected promotion, and said that he would give her the silent treatment until she apologized. “This seriously was so upsetting to me because I was not upset about that. I was upset with him sexually harassing me and he is trying to create his own narrative,” she wrote in her timeline.
On July 25, the woman emailed Bradley her detailed recollection of events, which she had written over the previous week. In addition to the advances, the woman claimed that Malik “said derogatory and inappropriate things about women since I started here.” She alleged that Malik called a female colleague “fat” and “ugly,” would rate the appearance of potential hires, and told colleagues that the office’s new fellow — essentially a young female intern — “wanted him.”
Bradley immediately looped in Fassler, who called the woman. They both assured her they were taking the accusations seriously. Bradley and Castaldo, the general counsel, immediately went to the Senate’s employment counsel and consulted with it throughout the process, a routine step for Senate offices when confronted with sexual harassment complaints to protect them from liability.
Though it’s common in Congress for top aides to investigate alleged harassment by another office employee, experts in sexual harassment law said the arrangement is inherently unfair to the complainant. Ideally, an independent third party should look into such claims given that staff members have pre-existing relationships that often pose a conflict of interest, they said.
Gillibrand’s office said it had previously explored hiring outside investigators but determined it was “not a realistic or viable option.” However, experts said several House offices have taken that step.
“There have been instances when offices have sought out an objective third party to conduct the investigation and that seems to be a method that increases fairness for all parties concerned,” said Kristin Nicholson, a former longtime chief of staff on the Hill and co-founder of Congress Too, an organization of former congressional staffers committed to combating sexual harassment in Congress.
Gillibrand herself has made the case for a similar setup for the military, pushing legislation that would have independent prosecutors — rather than commanders — handle allegations of sexual misconduct in the military.
The main mechanism for the woman to bring a complaint outside the Senate office would have been through the Office of Compliance. She visited that office before going to her superiors but found it unhelpful, saying a staffer merely recited language from its website. She also knew that in order to file a complaint she would first have to go through at least 30 days of mediation and likely more. Last year, Gillibrand called that a “daunting requirement,” while pushing to reform the compliance office.
So the woman turned to Gillibrand’s aides. In addition to the senator’s public stance on the issue, the office had required staffers to undergo three training sessions the previous year on sexual harassment prevention, including one in early July.
When she learned on July 30 that the office had disciplined but not fired Malik, the woman was upset. But at the time, she trusted that the office did all it could. “I felt satisfied there had been a fair process,” she recounted in her resignation letter.
A change of heart
That appraisal, however, began to change the next morning when Bradley entered the woman’s office and told her that Malik was upset. “Wouldn’t you be?” Bradley said, according to notes of the conversation the woman emailed to herself immediately afterward.
The woman said Malik should be feeling remorseful. But Bradley said Malik felt that losing his potential promotion was too harsh a punishment. She also said Fassler, the chief of staff, had said Malik was “lucky” because the office could have fired him for many reasons.
A few hours later, the woman met with Bradley in Gillibrand’s office and asked Bradley why Malik hadn’t been dismissed if there were other grounds for firing him. Fassler then called and was put on speakerphone. He said Bradley’s remarks to her were “inappropriate” and tried to explain his comment by saying he had reasons to fire everyone in the office, including her. That further upset her.
The woman then pressed Bradley on why the office did not reach out to the former employees she had said could speak to Malik’s behavior. Bradley told her that lawyers recommended not contacting former employees, according to contemporaneous notes of the conversation that Gillibrand’s office said were “not accurate.”
Robbie Kaplan, a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, spoke with POLITICO last week at the request of Gillibrand’s office. While Kaplan declined to speak on the record about this particular case, she said the decision whether to interview former employees varies from case to case depending on the facts and circumstances. “It’s always possible to look back and criticize with the benefit of hindsight,” Kaplan said.
Knowing she was upset, Fassler called the woman back, apologized, and tried to affirm that she was satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, according to another email the woman wrote to herself that documented the conversation.
The woman said she had felt fine until her conversation with Bradley. Fassler said she must have just misinterpreted Bradley, to which she retorted: “I’m getting tired of people saying I’m misinterpreting things.”
Later that evening, the woman noticed that Malik did not update her when Gillibrand decided not to go to a softball game and then the next morning did not tell her that the senator was running behind schedule. She went to her bosses and said Malik was making her job more difficult in response to her reporting him. Though Gillibrand’s office contends such updates weren’t required, Malik had regularly given the woman and others in the office notice in the past.
Bradley consulted the Senate employment counsel again and Gillibrand’s office determined “that no retaliation had occurred and that no disciplinary action was appropriate.” It added that “in one verbal conversation, [Fassler] proactively told her they looked into it and to let him know if anything continued.”
Beyond that, Bradley and Fassler did not update the woman on the specific steps taken, the conclusions of the investigation, or any disciplinary action. That made her think the office didn’t take her complaint seriously.
Bradley exacerbated that feeling when she accidentally sent the woman an email intended for Fassler. “I get the impression she is trying to divide and concur [sic]. After today, neither of us should meet with her alone,” Bradley wrote, mistakenly believing that the woman had gone to Fassler alone with her complaint.
Gillibrand’s office argued it made many efforts to make the woman feel supported. Bradley and Fassler regularly checked in with her and assured her they “believed” her even if they did not dismiss Malik. Fassler canceled a meeting in which she and Malik would have had to be in the same room, and he talked to her about other opportunities in the office — positions she considered demotions — if she no longer wanted to work in her current role, which required her to interact with Malik.
And after the harassment investigation ended but before she quit, Gillibrand approached the woman and tried to console her with a quick hug and a “We love you.” The woman considered it an empty gesture.
The breaking point
On Aug. 13, the woman told Fassler that she would resign and cited the office’s handling of the investigation. As she thought about the decision earlier that morning, the woman explained to a friend that “[Malik] was using his position and relationship with the senator to solicit me. I acted the same as I always had: friendly, kind, outgoing, inclusive. But this time he decided to read it as me wanting him,” according to a copy of the email.
She recalled that Fassler reacted defensively about the office’s handling of the allegations and told her that she had also committed fireable offenses during her time in the office. One comment by Fassler that particularly galled her, she said, was that investigation found that she had “fed” Malik alcohol while he was on duty as a driver. In her claim, she wrote that she and Malik had grabbed a quick drink in the courtyard of the Capitol late one afternoon to talk about the office. She was frustrated that Fassler was blaming her given that Malik is an adult capable of deciding what to consume.
“I felt as though I was being belittled, insulted and intimidated even when I was trying to quit,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Gillibrand’s office acknowledged the exchange but said Fassler was obligated to raise what it called “an unrelated office policy violation” with the woman, referring to the alcohol incident. The office said Fassler, throughout the case, “repeatedly demonstrated his respect and gratitude for the employee, and he was grateful she came forward.”
Fassler asked her to reconsider resigning and then offered to allow her to stay until she found a new job so she could keep her health benefits.
She decided to leave. In her final days at the office, the woman agonized over whether to send the letter to Gillibrand. Doing so would almost certainly burn bridges and likely hurt her professional prospects in the clubby world of national politics.
It was Gillibrand’s female-focused advocacy that had made the woman want to work for her in the first place. For years, the senator has positioned herself at the forefront of fighting sexual misconduct in the military and in Congress. She wrote in Fortune last April that “Congress has a sexual harassment problem—and isn’t taking it seriously,” and helped push through legislation to overhaul the institution’s practices.
“Whether it’s in the military, a college campus, the NFL, corporate America, or the halls of Congress, survivors of harassment too often continue to be disbelieved, blamed, and even retaliated against,” Gillibrand wrote. “This stops when we value all people — women and men who are harassed — and when we listen, believe them, and create a system in which justice is possible.”
Gillibrand has made her advocacy for women the animating cause of her presidential bid — which the woman had hoped to work on — describing her approach to the Democratic primary as “women plus.”
“Our campaign is confronting the toxic culture of sexism and misogyny in our political system,” a Facebook ad last month read. “We’re fighting for women to be heard. We’re fighting to be valued.”
But the woman said the rhetoric belies her own experience. She is now considering a career outside of politics and far away from Washington.