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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
There’s more but you get the idea. The #MeToo movement seems to end with Muslim misogyny.