Many women’s rights advocates were shocked last week to learn that leaders of the country’s top anti-harassment organization had advised Gov. Andrew Cuomo on how to respond to his own allegations of sexual misconduct. Former staffers of the organization were not.
The allegations contained in the New York Attorney General’s report against Time’s Up—a group founded during the #MeToo movement to address workplace harassment, assault, and discrimination—spurred open letters and furious op-eds, accusing the group of abandoning its stated mission. But former staffers told The Daily Beast that the incident was emblematic of the culture at Time’s Up, where powerful executives and board members dictated policy based on their connections with media and political power players, rather than on the needs of survivors or ideas of staff.
Or, as one former staffer put it bluntly, “It was patriarchy with a dress on.”
Time’s Up was founded in early 2018 in response to the rampant allegations of sexual misconduct circulating in Hollywood at the time. More than 300 women signed onto the letter announcing its founding, pledging to help end the “impenetrable monopoly” of male-dominated workplaces and make survivors everywhere feel seen and heard. The effort was immensely successful, raising a record-breaking $16.7 million on GoFundMe and securing high-profile celebrity backers like Meryl Streep, Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon.
But the organization began attracting criticism in 2020, when it declined to provide financial support to a woman who accused then-candidate Joe Biden of sexual assault. Earlier this year, it raised hackles when it defended a member accused of covering up sexual harassment and asked members of its entertainment committee to sign non-disparagement agreements strikingly similar to the kind of NDAs it advocates against.
The group faced its harshest blow yet last week, when former board chair Roberta Kaplan and CEO Tina Tchen were accused of consulting Cuomo on how to respond to the sexual harassment allegations against him. A report from the state attorney general’s office claimed Kaplan and Tchen had signed off on a letter from the governor disparaging one of his accusers. The backlash was swift, and Kaplan—who had also drawn scrutiny for representing Goldman Sachs in a sexual harassment suit last year—stepped down from the board.
Tchen said in a statement that she had only discussed the letter in a phone call with Kaplan, and that she had “never given advice to the Governor or his team.” Kaplan, for her part, said she had made it “very clear” in her conversations with the governor that “any response should never shame an accuser.”
“Unfortunately, recent events have made it clear that even our apparent allies in the fight to advance women can turn out to be abusers,” Kaplan wrote in her resignation letter. “It has raised important questions about how and why Time’s Up does what it does, as well as demands on the part of advocates and staff for a kind of radical transparency.”
But former employees say the group’s cozy relationship with Cuomo had long been a source of tension, even before the AG’s report. The governor was considered both a key ally in the group’s fight for workplace equity, former employees said, and a personal connection of Kaplan’s. Multiple employees told The Daily Beast that staff would get emails directly from Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa asking them to promote the governor’s work—and that they often did so, even when it did not align with their own.
In one instance, the organization tweeted about Cuomo’s work to close the so-called rape intoxication loophole—and even issued a laudatory statement about it—even though it was outside of their usual policy area. (The group generally confines itself to workplace issues.) In another, they posted about the governor’s work on a New York version of the Equal Rights Amendment, even though the ERA was an issue that staff had specifically been told not to address before then.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, staffers also said they were chastised for posting on social media about Alessandra Biaggi, a New York state senator, sexual assault survivor, and vocal critic of Cuomo. Employees said the Time’s Up website once featured a full-bleed image of Biaggi, but employees said the organization removed it when the governor’s office called to complain. (A Time’s Up spokesperson said at the time that the group never received any complaints from Cuomo.)
So it didn’t surprise the staff that, when Cuomo first faced allegations of sexual assault this winter, Time’s Up’s response was muted. In December, when former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan first tweeted her allegations, staffers say leadership told them not to respond at all, claiming the organization did not respond to individual, self-reported allegations. In February, when more allegations surfaced, the group issued a statement urging the Cuomo administration to conduct an investigation—rather than calling on the attorney general’s office body to do so, as most advocacy groups had done. Employees were so concerned by the statement that it wound up on the agenda for a staff meeting where, multiple former employees said, Tchen brushed aside their complaints and claimed everyone knew they had meant to call for a fully independent investigation.
The lackluster response, staffers said, was clearly related to the group’s close ties with Cuomo—they worked hand in hand with the governor on a landmark sexual assault bill in 2019—but was also a reflection of the leadership’s deference to powerful allies. The group had “no playbook or plan for what to do when a powerful Democrat was accused,” one source with knowledge of the communications strategy said, “because they were so terrified of burning bridges with powerful people.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, Tchen said the group did not respond to Boylan’s initial allegations because they “thought it important to uplift stories only after they had already been covered and investigated.” The group’s eventual statement made it clear that the investigation into Boylan’s allegations should be “full and independent,” she added, even if it didn’t explicitly mention the AG’s office. “Just because an entity being investigated hires and pays the law firm or investigator to do the investigation does not mean that it is not independent,” she said.
Tchen also acknowledged that Cuomo’s office would occasionally ask Time’s Up to promote its work on gender equality, but that both the rape intoxicant loophole and the ERA were well within the organization’s mission. “To say it clearly, Cuomo WAS NOT deciding our agenda,” she said.
But even in less sinister situations, employees said they were often frustrated by an organization that seemed largely rudderless; driven more by the whims of the powerful founders and board members than by any actual plan for change.
“There was no thoughtful strategy,” one former staffer said. “It was just on to the next shiniest thing.”
In one instance, in early 2020, staffers received a phone call from leadership telling them to drop everything they were working on. The journalist Gayle King was getting harassed online, and one of her powerful friends in Hollywood had asked the organization to support her. Although they were all working on other campaigns or major news, multiple employees said, they were required to put aside their work for that day to release a statement, launch a petition, and post on multiple social media platforms about the controversy.
In her email, Tchen said the harassment of King, a Black woman journalist, was “directly related to the work we do.” But staffers felt differently.
“It felt so out of touch and awkward and not relevant, but because we had gotten that call it was the top priority for the day,” one former staffer said. “Everyone was like, ‘Why is this a priority amidst all the other stuff we’re campaigning around?’”
“It could literally stop a day if someone called and said, ‘How have we not said or done something about this thing?’” she added.
The Daily Beast previously reported on how Time’s Up stood by King’s good friend Oprah Winfrey when the media mogul pulled out of a documentary about Russell Simmons’ survivors at the last minute. Weeks later, Winfrey quietly funneled the organization a $500,000 donation. (Tchen told The Daily Beast at the time that her organization’s decisions were made “completely independent from any donation from Oprah.”)
Staffers said Tchen, in particular, posed a problem due to her conflicts of interest. When she signed on as CEO in 2019—replacing CEO Lisa Borders, who resigned after her son was accused of sexual assault—Tchen provided the organization with a long list of companies for which she had previously consulted. While the CEO formally recused herself from working on any Time’s Up projects involving those companies, staffers say the group frequently pulled its punches when it came to those organizations. In 2019, for example, when Uber released a report on sexual assaults in their cars, many advocates responded with outrage. Staffers at Time’s Up, however, said they were instructed to send a tweet praising Uber for its transparency instead. (After much internal debate, the organization decided not to tweet at all.)
In her email, Tchen said she was “not involved in any discussion about whether to Tweet about the release of the Uber safety report in December 2019.”
Early this week, in the wake of the Cuomo revelations, more than 100 survivors, former Time’s Up staffers, and former Time’s Up legal defense fund clients released an open letter accusing the organization of “abandon[ing] the very people it was supposed to champion.” They called on the group to conduct a third-party investigation into any staffers who had advised “perpetrators of harm” like Cuomo, and to immediately dismiss anyone who had done so. They also asked the group to form a Survivor Advisory Council before the end of the year.
Days later, Tchen released an open letter of her own, apologizing for any pain she caused while also claiming that her organization was being scapegoated to cover for “heinous actions going on behind the scenes.” She promised more information on a forthcoming “collaborative process” to win back the trust of survivors, and asked for them not to lose faith in the organization.
“This moment, while devastating in many regards, forced us to reckon with the fact that we’ve moved out of alignment with the broader survivor community, full stop,” she wrote. “The progress we have made was seeded by your work and that of impacted people-led movements who have fought for change for decades. We have a responsibility to honor that and to earn our place in that lineage.”
But former staffers were not impressed. Several said they had long warned the organization about the kinds of problems it was just now pledging to fix. Kaplan’s resignation proved that the organization was willing to make difficult decisions, one person who worked with the group said, but, “I don’t get the sense that anything has changed from a culture perspective.”
“The voice of a board member or an A-list celebrity with a big Instagram following is always going to be listened to first over the needs of a survivor,” the person added.
Other former staffers were less charitable, and several even suggested the organization be shut down for good.
“This organization has not even been around for four years. I don’t think it’s worth turning around,” one former staff member said.
“If people care about this issue, there are plenty of grassroots community groups that are supporting survivors and helping them,” she added. “And they are far more worthy of a donation or your support than Time’s Up.”