Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has positioned herself as an advocate for women. She led the charge calling for former Sen. Al Franken's, D-Minn., resignation after he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017, a decision that still haunts her political prospects among some donors today. And she has been an outspoken figure in the #MeToo movement, pushing for legislation on sexual harassment policy.
But when a sexual harassment complaint was filed in Gillibrand's own office, her former aide felt the situation was mishandled, Politico reported. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears damage to her career for speaking out, resigned out of protest after she felt the office did not take her allegation that another staffer was sexually harassing her seriously.
"I have offered my resignation because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was (sic) handled. I hope that your office will choose to handle cases like this with more sensitivity and understanding in the future," Politico reported the former aide wrote in a letter to Gillibrand dated Aug. 30, 2018.
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The woman, who is in her mid-20s, alleged that Abbas Malik — an Iraq War veteran who had worked for Gillibrand since 2011 — started making unwanted advances after he was told he would be getting a promotion. In his new role, Malik would be supervising the former aide. The woman said Malik made repeated comments such as “if we had met in a bar would it have happened for us?” and “I thought by debrief you meant you were hitting on me,” referring to an earlier text message.
The woman made it clear that she was not interested in a sexual relationship with Malik, including texting him, “You’re married!!” But he continued to flirt, according to the report.
Malik did not respond to Politico's request for comment.
When the former aide reported her experiences with Malik to Gillibrand's deputy chief of staff Anne Bradley on July 25, the office immediately opened an investigation into the alleged behavior in consultation with Senate Employment Counsel.
“At every step of the process, immediate action was taken by the office," Whitney Mitchell Brennan, Gillibrand's communications director, told NBC News in a statement. "A full and thorough investigation into the evidence revealed employee misconduct that, while inappropriate, did not meet the standard for sexual harassment."
The office did take disciplinary action against Malik, issuing a final warning and retracting his expected promotion. The former aide was upset that Malik had not been fired, but she decided to trust that the office had done all it could to rectify the situation.
Soon, however, another story emerged. The woman learned that chief of staff Jess Fassler had allegedly told Malik that the office could have fired him instead of just disciplining him. When she asked why Malik had not been terminated if there were grounds for his dismissal, she says she was told by Fassler that he had reason to fire everyone in the office, including her.
After tensions peaked, the former aide sent Fassler her resignation letter less than three weeks after reporting the alleged sexual misconduct.
“These are challenges that affect all of our nation’s workplaces, including mine, and the question is whether or not they are taken seriously," Gillibrand told NBC News in a statement. "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. 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.”
Gillibrand's statement references an interaction she had with the woman after the harassment investigation ended, when the senator gave her aide a quick hug and said "we love you." Politico reported that "the woman considered it an empty gesture."
Malik remained on staff until Politico approached Gillibrand's office two weeks ago with evidence of more alleged workplace misconduct by him and the senator's office opened another investigation. Malik was terminated last week.
One of the new allegations was made by a former staffer whom Gillibrand's office had failed to contact during the initial investigation last July, according to Politico. The woman alleged that Malik "often called her fat and unattractive to her face and made light of sexual abuse." She remembered a conversation about another woman Malik said “couldn’t get laid unless she was raped.”
Gillibrand is not the first 2020 Democratic hopeful to deal with reports of sexual harassment in her workplace. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., faced scrutiny recently when The Los Angeles Times reported The California Department of Justice settled more than $1.1 million in claims from DOJ employees who were allegedly sexually harassed and retaliated against by co-workers while Harris served as the state's attorney general. Harris told the Times through a spokesperson that she was unaware of the settlements but still took responsibility for what happened under her watch.
“As the chief executive of a department of nearly 5,000 employees, the buck stopped with me,” Harris said in a statement. “No one should face harassment or intimidation in the workplace, and victims of sexual misconduct should be listened to, believed and protected.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has also responded to accusations of "episodes of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment as well as pay disparity" during his 2016 presidential campaign, according to The New York Times.
"To the women on my 2016 campaign who were harassed or mistreated, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for speaking out. I apologize," Sanders wrote on Twitter.
But unlike with Sanders and Harris, the allegations against Gillibrand's office come as she is already struggling to build up steam for a presidential bid. She is the only Democratic senator running for president who has not yet been endorsed by one of her congressional colleagues from her home state, according to reports.
The allegations also complicate Gillibrand's status as one of politics' most ardent #MeToo supporters.
Gillibrand's record on women's issues had partly motivated her former aide to work for her.
"After the 2016 election I was devastated by the choice that America made, and I felt driven to work for a politician who would fight for women's rights at a time when they were being openly threatened in our country. Senator Gillibrand, you were the public servant I wanted to work for," the woman wrote in a letter to Gillibrand.
But, she continued, "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 eventual Democratic nominee will face President Donald Trump, who has denied multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.