There’s a chasm between the public posture of leading liberal think tank the Center American Process as a voice leading the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace, and its handling of internal complaints, according to extensive reporting from BuzzFeed published Tuesday.
A July 2016 memo written by CAP’s employee union—whose general contents were reportedly shared with CAP president Neera Tanden—detailed “several incidents of sexual harassment against several members of our unit.”
CAP is undoubtedly the most prominent and influential liberal think tank in Washington. Since its founding, there has been a continual revolving door between CAP and the upper echelons of Democratic politics. (Its founder, John Podesta, served in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses, and played a crucial role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Tanden is also a staunch Clinton supporter.) The group has previously weathered criticism for its string of major corporate donors.
One prominent set of allegations reportedly came from a junior staffer, who asked the site to refer to her as Mary, against Benton Strong, a manager on her team. These included sexually explicit text messages sent without her consent. Before she left CAP, Mary said in an exit email obtained by BuzzFeed that “on several occasions, myself and others on the team felt as if reporting had been a mistake and that the retaliation, worsening of already tenuous team dynamics, and treatment by supervisors outweighed the seemingly positive act of reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.”
“CAP’s culture obscures its mission,” Mary also wrote. “All of this to say, I surely expected better out of an organization that housed a national campaign on sexual assault.”
According to the union, although CAP “eventually took appropriate course of action” on reports of sexual harassment in the organization, they still “failed to adequately address the situation.” Among the union’s recommendations to Tanden were holding a sexual harassment response training “in the immediate future.” Tanden refused, a former union member told BuzzFeed.
“Neera’s approach was maybe we can start hosting brown bags with HR so people will feel more comfortable coming out and doing things. So they had almost a do-nothing approach. ... They said they would think about things that [the union brought up], and that was essentially it,” the former union member said.
In a statement to Splinter, a CAP spokesperson said neither Tandem nor “anyone else in management” received the memo and also disputed the union’s claim to BuzzFeed that she was against a proposed training:
Neera explicitly said in the meeting with the union that she was open to having a sexual harassment training. In fact we are working with current union leadership on developing that training now.
At the beginning of the meeting, we learned that the union had not talked to the complainant who received the inappropriate texts. We also understood that they did not know all of the actions we had taken, though of course they knew Mr. Strong had suddenly left the office. We asked whether they were aware of any instances of inappropriate conduct that had not already been reported. They were not aware of any such instance.
The spokesperson also said that “within hours” of Mary’s report about Strong, the organization took “immediate action and aggressive steps”:
CAP takes reports of sexual harassment or other inappropriate employee conduct incredibly seriously. Within hours of learning of inappropriate texts by Mr. Strong, we took immediate action and aggressive steps to ensure the safety of all our employees while doing our best to respect the wishes of the complainant, who initially asked us not to investigate, and who asked us to ensure word didn’t get out about the incident. Indeed, within hours of our learning of the complaint, Mr. Strong was escorted out of the building with his belongings, never to return. Our overriding concern is to create a safe work environment for CAP employees and we did so even as the complainant asked us to do everything we could to protect her privacy.
UPDATE, 12:02 PM: This post has been updated to include statements from a CAP spokesperson.