Former Gillibrand Staffer Says Her Office Bungled Sexual Harassment Claim

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty)

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—who is running for president—has made fighting sexual assault the hallmark of her political career, speaking out frequently in support of women who’ve experienced harassment or assault and leading the calls for then-Sen. Al Franken to resign after a series of allegations of improper behavior began popping up in late 2017. But according to a new report, Gillibrand’s Senate office has been accused by a former staffer of inadequately responding after one of her top aides was reported for sexual harassment this past summer.

Speaking with Politico, that staffer (who was granted anonymity for fear of “retaliation and damage to her future professional prospects”) claims that one of Gillibrand’s chief male advisors, Abbas Malik, “made unwelcome advances towards her” and “regularly made crude, misogynistic remarks in the office about his female colleagues and potential female hires.” Several other Gillibrand staffers backed up the claim to Politico.

According to the letter, Malik was initially punished with a demotion. After multiple conversations with chief of staff Jess Fassler, in which Fassler allegedly explicitly stated he could have fired the staffer as well, the staffer resigned from Gillibrand’s office a few weeks later.

“I have offered my resignation because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was handled,” the staffer wrote.

She continued:

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.

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After Politico reportedly presented Gillibrand’s office with additional allegations of sexual harassment against Malik, including a rape “joke,” he was fired last week. (Malik reportedly did not respond to requests for comment.)

According to Politico, the staffer who left Gillibrand’s office is now looking to start a career outside of politics entirely.

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I have reached out to Gillibrand’s office for comment on the allegations published by Politico, and will update this story if they respond. In the meantime, Gillibrand herself issued a statement to Politico defending her office’s handling of the allegations made this past summer.

“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,” Gillibrand told Politico. “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.”

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Update, 9:45 a.m. E.T.: Whitney Mitchell Brennan, Gillibrand’s communications director, provided the following statement to Splinter:

Unfortunately, no workplace is exempt from employee misconduct, including ours. What’s important is that when an individual reports allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination in our workplace, an immediate and thorough investigation is conducted in consultation with experts, which is precisely what occurred in this case.

At every step of the process, immediate action was taken by the office. The previous allegations in question were investigated in consultation with Senate Employment Counsel, and included multiple interviews with relevant current employees who could potentially corroborate the claims. A full and thorough investigation into the evidence revealed employee misconduct that, while inappropriate, did not meet the standard for sexual harassment. However, because the office did find unprofessional behavior that violated office policy, including derogatory comments, the office took strong disciplinary action against the employee in question and he was given a final warning.

Recently, we learned of never-before reported and deeply troubling comments allegedly made by this same individual. The office immediately began another investigation and interviewed relevant witnesses, which has led to the office terminating the employee from staff last week.

Senator Gillibrand is committed to ensuring allegations are handled seriously, investigated, and followed by appropriate punishment, which is why she helped pass stronger sexual harassment protections in Congress and prioritizes proper harassment training to better prevent these occurrences and encourage future reporting.

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Rafi Schwartz

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.