Connect with us

U.S. Federal Courts

Fired Human Rights Campaign president sues, alleges racial discrimination

“Black and Brown people are treated differently and have been for years in this organization”

Published

on

Alphonso David (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Alphonso David, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign terminated by the board after he was ensnared in the Gov. Andrew Cuomo scandal, sued the nation’s leading LGBTQ group on Thursday, arguing he was fired as a result of racial discrimination “amid a deserved reputation for unequal treatment of its non-white employees” and was explicitly told he was paid less because he’s Black.

David, speaking with the Washington Blade on Thursday during a phone interview, said he came to the decision to file the lawsuit after practicing civil rights law for 20 years and “never thought that I would be a plaintiff.”

“But I’m in this chair, I was put in this position,” David said. “And as a civil rights lawyer, I couldn’t look the other way. It would be anathema to who I am and it would undermine my integrity and purpose for the work that I do. And so I have to go through and make a very, very difficult personal decision to file this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, accuses the Human Rights Campaign of violating new state and federal laws for terminating David, who was the organization’s first person of color and Black person to helm the LGBTQ group in its 40-year history. The lawsuit also contends the Human Rights Campaign contravened equal pay law in New York by paying David less than his predecessor, Chad Griffin.

After a public dispute with the board in September amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair, the Human Rights Campaign boards unceremoniously fired David and shortly afterward announced a still ongoing search for a new president. David was named nearly a dozen times in the damning report by New York Attorney General Letitia James, suggesting David assisted in efforts by Cuomo’s staff to discredit a woman alleging sexual misconduct in Cuomo’s office. David has consistently denied wrongdoing.

But the lawsuit is broader than the termination and describes an environment at the Human Rights Campaign, which has faced criticism over the years for being geared toward white gay men, as a workplace where “non-white staffers were marginalized, tokenized, and denied advancement to high-level positions.” After a speech David gave on issues of race and indifference in the context of HRC’s mission, the lawsuit claims a board member complained about him referring too much to being Black, but faced no penalty from the organization.

Specifically named in the report is Chris Speron, Senior Vice President of Development, who expressed concern about “alienating” white donors and specifically “white gay men” after David issued a statement on the importance of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The lawsuit claims Speron pushed David to “stop mentioning in his public statements and remove from his bio the fact that he was HRC’s first Black President in its history.” Speron also was critical of hiring a Black-owned consulting firm and “criticized a Black staff member for attending a meeting with the consulting firm without a white person present,” the lawsuit claims. Speron couldn’t immediately be reached for comment to respond to the allegations.

In terms of equal pay, the lawsuit says HRC’s co-chairs informed David he was underpaid compared to his predecessor because he’s Black. But the lawsuit also acknowledges in 2021, just before news broke about the Cuomo report, the Human Rights Campaign in recognition of David’s work renewed his contract for five additional years and gave him a 30 percent raise.

David, speaking with the Blade, said he was in “shock” upon experiencing these alleged incidents of racism, maintaining he had kept quiet at the time out of concern for the greater good of the aims of the Human Rights Campaign.

Asked whether as president he considered implementing racial sensitivity trainings for his subordinates, David said “yes,” but added many trainings aren’t effective and said the power in organizations like the Human Rights Campaign is often spread out.

“There are people within the organization that have a fair amount of board support because they bring in the money because they are responsible for overseeing the money,” David added.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed the organization is “disappointed that Alphonso David has chosen to take retaliatory action against the Human Rights Campaign for his termination which resulted from his own actions.”

“Mr. David’s complaint is riddled with untruths,” Madison said. “We are confident through the legal process that it will be apparent that Mr. David’s termination was based on clear violations of his contract and HRC’s mission, and as president of HRC, he was treated fairly and equally.”

Madison adds the individuals accused of racism in the lawsuit “are people of color and champions of racial equity and inclusion who provided support and guidance as Mr. David led the organization,” without naming any specific individual. The boards for the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation who made the decision to terminate David, were comprised of seven independent directors, five of whom were Black.

The racist environment, the lawsuit says, culminated for David in September 2021 amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair conducted by the law firm Sidley Austin LLP at the behest of the organization. According to the lawsuit, the board co-chairs contacted David late at night before Labor Day weekend to tell him to resign by 8 a.m. the next morning or be terminated for cause. When David asked whether the Sidley Austin investigation had made any findings against him, or if a report would be issued explaining what he was accused of doing wrong, the board co-chairs refused to say, the lawsuit says.

As is publicly known, David declined to resign and took to Twitter to complain about the board, which subsequently issued a statement disputing his claims. He was then fired “for cause” under his contract.

The termination, the lawsuit says, signified differential treatment of David because he is Black, taking note the Human Rights Campaign under his predecessor had “endured repeated, serious, scandals — many of which involved HRC’s mistreatment of Black and other marginalized individuals,” but Chad Griffin was never terminated “for cause.”

Both the Human Rights Campaign Foundation board and the Human Rights Campaign board voted to terminate David. A source familiar with the vote said no one voted “no” in either case. The campaign board vote was unanimous and there were two abstentions in the foundation board vote, the source said.

The source familiar with the vote said David never told the Human Rights Campaign he was helping Cuomo during his time as HRC president nor did he disclose he was talking to the New York attorney general. The first board members heard about it was when it hit the press, the source said.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit says David “performed extremely well as HRC president, by any measure,” navigating the organization through the coronavirus epidemic and boosting fundraising by 60 percent. (The Blade has not yet verified this claim.) It should be noted the Human Rights Campaign cited coronavirus as the reason it laid off 22 employees, as reported at the time by the Blade.

David, asked by the Blade how he sees the alleged racist culture at Human Rights Campaign infused in his termination, said “Black and Brown people are treated differently and have been for years in this organization,” citing a “Pipeline Report” leaked to the press in 2015 documenting an environment in which employees of color were unable to thrive.

“And so, the fact that I’m being treated differently now, in the fact that a different standard is being applied to me is just simply consistent with what they’ve always done,” David said. “You know, we go back to the Pipeline Report: Imagine if I was leading the organization at the time, and there was a report that was issued, that said that anti-Semitic remarks were being made within the organization, and that women were being discriminated against within the organization or some other marginalized group and that one of the senior vice presidents used a derogatory remark. Do you think I would still be at the organization or would they have fired me?”

David concluded: “There’s a different standard and a double standard that they’ve applied for decades, and I’ve just now been one casualty — another in a long series of casualties based on their systemic bias and discrimination.”

Among the requests in the prayer for relief in the complaint is a declaration the Human Rights Campaign’s actions violated the law; restoration of David to his position as president; an award of the compensation he would have received were he still on the job as well as punitive damages. Asked by the Blade whether any settlement talks have taken place, David said that wasn’t the case and pointed out the lawsuit was recently filed.

Legal experts who spoke to the Blade have doubted the validity of a review by Sidley Austin on the basis it was among the legal firms agreeing in 2019 to help with the Human Rights Campaign entering into litigation to advance LGBTQ rights, an agreement David spearheaded upon taking the helm of the organization.

David, in response to a question from the Blade, said the independent investigation into his role in the Cuomo affair “is a sham and I believe it was a sham,” citing the lack of transparency of findings.

“One of the first instances that caused me concern,” David said, “is I suggested to the organization that we conduct an independent review, and they came back to me and said, ‘Here’s our press release history,’ and the press release never mentioned that I actually suggested that they do this review. And when I challenged them on that, they told me that they thought it would be better for the press to review a complaint or receive a statement that showed that they were bringing this investigation as opposed to I’m recommending and push back even more. And then they said ‘Well, we will put in the statement that you are cooperating.’ So from the very beginning, they were not honest about what they were actually doing.”

Representing David in the lawsuit is the Chicago-based employment law firm Stowell & Friedman, Ltd. and and Chicago-based attorney Matt Singer. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano, a George W. Bush appointee, an informed source familiar with the case said.

The lawsuit was filed in New York as opposed to D.C. because David is a New York resident and much of the discriminatory behavior took place in New York, the source said. The pay disparity alleged in the lawsuit is expressed in percentages as oppose to hard numbers pursuant to rules for the judiciary in New York, the source added.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court sides with ex-football coach who led prayers at school

“Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion is yet another dangerous example of this Court overturning decades of precedent”

Published

on

The Justices of the United States Supreme Court (Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a 6-3 ruling sided with the former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach removed for refusing to halt his practice of praying at mid-field after games on school property.

The ruling is a victory for Joseph Kennedy, who in court documents described himself as a practicing Christian whose religious beliefs require him to “give thanks through prayer, at the end of each game.”

When he began his job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School, a public school in Washington state, he initially prayed alone after games, but over time some of his players – and eventually a majority of the team – joined him. One parent complained that his son, a player on the team, felt like he had to join in the prayer, even though he was an atheist, or face a loss of playing time.”

Bremerton School District officials had attempted to accommodate Kennedy after warning him to stop the prayers as District officials clarified that they did not want to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another.

The district offered Kennedy the ability to pray after the crowd had left the stadium or in a private space both options that he refused. Kennedy had retained counsel and the legal team indicated that they would pursue father legal action.

The case eventually ended up at the high court which agreed to hear it at the beginning of this last term in January.

Joseph Kennedy being interviewed by NBC News affiliate KING-TV 5, Seattle, Washington

Reaction from groups advocating for greater safeguards in separation of ‘church and state’ decried the majority decision written by Trump nominated Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Equality California noted that the Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District effectively was overturning decades of established legal precedent.

“Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion is yet another dangerous example of this Court overturning decades of precedent to impose the personal religious beliefs of some on the rest of the country — whether that be a public school football coach’s religious beliefs on his team, a legislator’s views on people in their state seeking abortion care or the views of a religious private school on taxpayers now forced to fund them.

“Parents have always been free to send their children to schools that align with their religious beliefs, and coaches who want to lead their players in prayer have always been free to work at private schools where that is encouraged. But students — of any religion or none at all — attending public schools funded by taxpayers should not be coerced into school-sponsored prayer,” Equality California’s Executive Director, Tony Hoang, said in an emailed statement.

“Every public school student deserves to feel safe, supported and welcome at school. Today’s decision undermines that fundamental idea at a particularly dangerous time for our LGBTQ+ students.”

Continue Reading

U.S. Federal Courts

U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

Justice Thomas said the Court should also reconsider the decisions that extended marriage equality & the right to private, consensual sex

Published

on

Crowds gather outside SCOTUS after Roe v Wade was overturned June 24, 2022 (Blade Photo by Josh Alburtus)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday in a 6-3 ruling overturned Roe v. Wade. Justice Clarence Thomas in the decision said the Supreme Court should also reconsider the decisions in the Obergefell and Lawrence cases that extended marriage equality to same-sex couples and the right to private, consensual sex.

LGBTQ rights groups were quick to condemn the ruling.

“Today the Supreme Court issued a devastating ruling in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs — a huge setback to our long-standing fundamental right to bodily autonomy,” said National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson. “This decision by the conservative majority on the bench also marks the beginning of the vital work to re-establish our constitutional foundation for reproductive justice and freedom. We must redouble our work to protect access to abortion and reproductive justice at the state and national levels. We will never give up.”

“When the Supreme Court is willing to throw 50 years of precedent out the window, it proves that we are at an exceedingly dangerous, unprecedented moment. The Court’s majority opinion does not reflect the will of our nation — two thirds of whom support Roe v. Wade but instead fulfills an extreme, out of step, ideological agenda. And it shows that all of our rights are on the line right now, as state lawmakers will be further emboldened to test the limits of our hard-won civil rights,” added interim Human Rights Campaign President Joni Madison. “Women are under attack, LGBTQ+ people are under attack, BIPOC people are under attack, and we are justifiably outraged. We cannot relent — we must fight back.”

Jim Obergefell, a candidate for the Ohio House and the lead plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme case that affirmed marriage equality as the law of the land, issued the following statement today following news that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“It’s a sad day for womens’ rights. This U.S. Supreme Court continues to erode the rights of citizens at an alarming rate. We are facing a health and human rights crisis in this country and as a result countless lives will be at risk. Women deserve responsive leaders who support reproductive justice. Leaders who respect their basic right to have control over their own body. The reality is that women today will have less rights than their own mothers. We are going backwards and it’s both enraging and terrifying to see the excessive government overreach that this court is imposing on our country.”

In his remarks on the Supreme Court ruling, President Joe Biden speaking live from the Great Cross Hall in the White House said at one point, “It just stuns me,” adding that poor women would be hit the hardest by the decision. “This is a sad day for the country in my view but it does not mean the fight is over.”

He called on Congress to restore abortion protections into law and pointed to the November midterm elections, saying, “this fall, Roe is on the ballot.”

He urged protests to be conducted peacefully and said violence is never acceptable.

“This decision must not be the final word,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden’s remarks ended at 12:49 p.m. EST after speaking for nearly 12 minutes. He did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about the ruling and the future of the Supreme Court. 

Screenshot/YouTube NBC News

U. S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland released a statement condemning the high court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court has eliminated an established right that has been an essential component of women’s liberty for half a century – a right that has safeguarded women’s ability to participate fully and equally in society. And in renouncing this fundamental right, which it had repeatedly recognized and reaffirmed, the Court has upended the doctrine of stare decisis, a key pillar of the rule of law.

“The Justice Department strongly disagrees with the Court’s decision. This decision deals a devastating blow to reproductive freedom in the United States. It will have an immediate and irreversible impact on the lives of people across the country. And it will be greatly disproportionate in its effect – with the greatest burdens felt by people of color and those of limited financial means. “

The Attorney General went on to warn that acts of violence in the wake of today’s ruling will not be tolerated.

“Advocates with different views on this issue have the right to, and will, voice their opinions. Peacefully expressing a view is protected by the First Amendment. But we must be clear that violence and threats of violence are not. The Justice Department will not tolerate such acts.”

Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights told the Blade in an email; Justice Thomas’s concurrence is an open assault on the landmark precedents that have transformed the place of LGBTQ people in our society. Historically, the Supreme Court has relied on substantive due process to protect essential liberties such as the freedom to decide whether to conceive a child, to marry or be in an intimate relationship with the person of one’s choice, to raise children as one sees fit, and to travel or move anywhere in the country.

“These are among our most basic and cherished freedoms, and Justice Thomas is urging the court to scrap them all. While the majority opinion does not go that far, it is full of landmines that appear to lay a foundation for future decisions that may cast these fundamental rights into question or eliminate them altogether. Today’s decision is even more alarming than the leaked opinion and strongly suggests that this is only the beginning of a radical campaign to undo decades of precedent.  The question is no longer if this Court is willing to jettison other fundamental freedoms, but how quickly they are likely to do so, and which ones are likely to be on the chopping block first,”  Minter added.

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Read the Supreme Court’s opinion:

Continue Reading

U.S. Federal Courts

National Black Justice Coalition CEO indicted on conspiracy, fraud charges

The indictment was handed down on June 7 by a federal grand jury with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida

Published

on

Sharon Lettman-Hicks (Photo courtesy National Black Justice Coalition)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Federal prosecutors in Tallahassee, Fla., on Wednesday unsealed a grand jury indictment charging Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the CEO of the D.C.-based LGBTQ+ group National Black Justice Coalition, and former Tallahassee mayor and unsuccessful Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, with conspiracy and multiple counts of fraud.

The indictment was handed down under seal on June 7 by a federal grand jury associated with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee before being publicly released in court on Wednesday.  

It states, among other things, that “Andrew Demetric Gillum and Sharon Janet Lettman-Hicks did knowingly and willfully combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with other persons to devise a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property by means of material false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promise, and to cause wire communications to be transmitted in interstate and foreign commerce for the purpose of executing such scheme, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343.”

The indictment says the alleged illegal actions by Gillum, who identifies as bisexual, and Lettman-Hicks took place between 2016 and 2019, including while Gillum served as mayor of Tallahassee through 2018 and when he became the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida in 2018.

Gillum, a Democrat, lost to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2018 race by about 32,000 votes, garnering more support than many political observers had expected.

According to the 26-page indictment, Gillum and Lettman-Hicks became targets of an FBI public corruption investigation in Tallahassee that began in 2015. It says Lettman-Hicks allegedly helped Gillum improperly funnel money solicited from FBI agents posing as real estate developers with the promise of providing something “very significant in return” in Gillum’s role as mayor in exchange for financial support for Gillum’s campaign for governor.

The indictment says much of the money went to Gillum for his personal use through a company Lettman-Hicks operated called P&P Communications. It charges both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks with 19 counts of wire fraud and one count of attempt and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper reports that both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks pleaded not guilty to the grand jury charges against them at a June 22 court hearing. The newspaper reports that both declined to comment when approached by reporters outside the courtroom. But Gillum and his attorneys a short time later released separate statements saying the allegations against Gillum were political and would be refuted in court.

“Throughout my career I have always stood up for the people of Florida and have spoken truth to power,” Gillum said in his statement. “There’s been a target on my back ever since I was the mayor of Tallahassee,” the statement continues. ‘They found nothing then, and I have full confidence that my legal team will prove my innocence now.”

Florida attorneys Marc Elias and David Oscar Markus, who are representing Gillum, said in a separate statement that prosecutors got the facts wrong. “The evidence in this case is clear and will show that Mr. Gillum is innocent of all charges,” the lawyers said in the statement.

The Tallahassee Democrat has also reported that Lettman-Hicks was qualified last week to run as a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in District 8, which includes Tallahassee.

Lettman-Hicks, 53, is listed on the National Black Justice Coalition website as the group’s CEO and board chair. Its website says she served as the group’s CEO and executive director from 2009 to 2017, when she stepped down as executive director. It says she is based in Tallahassee. David Johns, the current NBJC executive director, is based in the organization’s headquarters in D.C.

A spokesperson for the group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.  

On its website, NBJC says it has served since its founding in 2003 as “America’s leading national civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+, and same gender loving (LGBTQ+/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS through coalition building, federal policy change, research, and education.”

Gillum, 42, became the subject of media reports in March of 2020 when police found him in a Miami Beach hotel room too inebriated to talk and with an unconscious male in the room with him who police said had suffered from a drug overdose and who was later identified as a male sex worker.

Police said they found three plastic bags with suspected crystal meth in the room where Gillum and the other man had been staying. Gillum, who was not charged, denied using any drugs and said he had “too much to drink.” A short time later he announced he had entered a rehab program, citing struggles after losing his race for governor. Six months later, in a television interview with his wife beside him, Gillum disclosed he was bisexual.

The indictment against Gillum and Lettman-Hicks can be accessed here.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular