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Gloria Allred: HRC prez may be liable if found to have aided in Cuomo cover-up

High-profile attorney says taking personnel file violates privacy rights

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Gloria Allred says taking a personnel file after leaving the workplace a violation of privacy rights.

Attorney Gloria Allred, responding to questions about the Human Rights Campaign president’s links to the Andrew Cuomo scandal, said taking an employee’s personnel file after leaving a place of employment would be a violation of privacy rights — and Alphonso David could be individually liable if a court found he aided in disseminating that information to the media.

“Mr. David may be individually liable under New York law if a court determines that he did in fact ‘aid and abet’ Gov. Cuomo in retaliating against Ms. Boylan by providing Gov. Cuomo’s aides with a copy of her personnel file to leak to the media,” Allred said.

Allred, the Los Angeles-based women’s rights attorney known for taking high-profile cases and the lawyer for three of the women accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment, made the assertions Tuesday via email in response to inquiries from the Washington Blade on David’s presence in the New York attorney general’s damning report, which found Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing as many as 11 women in his office.

Asked by the Blade whether she’s aware of any New York State or federal law, policy, regulation, rule or ethics guidance against taking personnel files and whether David’s actions as described in the report would violate that, Allred said she’s not aware of any such law or rule for a departing public entity employee, but didn’t stop there.

“I would argue that doing so may be violative of the privacy rights of the employees whose personnel file was taken,” Allred said.

Allred conceded public sector employees generally may have fewer privacy protections than a private sector employee, pointing out the public may request a public sector employee’s personnel file through New York’s Freedom of Information Law. Further, Allred said New York law “does not expressly state that the entire contents of an employee’s personnel file is ‘confidential.'”

Nonetheless, Allred said personnel files typically contain confidential information under New York law, including personal identifying information like Social Security numbers, home addresses, telephone numbers, personal electronic mail addresses, internet passwords, confidential medical information/history protected by HIPAA.

Disciplinary records, Allred added, may also be included in this category of confidential information “depending on a number of factors.”

“Thus, I would argue that a departing employee should not keep copies of a coworker’s personnel files because it likely contains confidential information and doing so may violate that employee’s privacy rights,” Allred concluded.

According to the New York attorney general’s report, Cuomo aides sought to distribute unflattering material from the personnel file for Lindsey Boylan, who made sexual harassment accusations against him, in an attempt to discredit her. One aide — as part of that effort — reached out to David in December 2020, after David had left the governor’s office as counsel and was serving as Human Rights Campaign president, and asked for the “full file” for Boylan, the report says.

David, according to the report, took material from a separate, unrelated employment incident unflattering to Boylan, and arranged for the material to be given to Cuomo. The report doesn’t explicitly say David participated in efforts to distribute that material to the media, which was revealed to be an incident of alleged racial discrimination. David has denied all wrongdoing.

Allred, however, said Boylan can argue that she experienced illegal retaliation in violation of New York State law because she believes the AG office sent her personnel file to the media — and David could be in trouble if a court found he helped with that effort. Allred concluded David may be “individually liable” if a court found he was engaged in efforts to leak personnel material to the media.

The Human Rights Campaign, which announced on the day after the report was released that David’s contract as president has been renewed for five years, has stood by him, but announced it has hired the law firm Sidney Austin LLP to conduct an independent investigation of the matter that will take no longer than 30 days.

A representative for David, asked by the Washington Blade to respond to Allred’s assertions, denied the underpinnings on which they were made, saying the Human Rights Campaign president didn’t take a “personnel file.”

“David did not take any employee’s ‘personnel file’ as suggested,” the representative said. “This claim arises from blatant misinformation concerning Mr. David’s role in the Cuomo investigation. Mr. David did keep a copy of a memorandum concerning a matter he worked on because it was, in part, his work product (which is entirely permissible and standard practice for many).”

The legal representative added “to be absolutely clear,” as David has said before, he was required to produce the memo pursuant to rule 1.16 of the rules governing legal counsel.

“He did not provide any documents to the media concerning any Cuomo accuser,” the representative said. “This insinuation is categorically false and is not supported by any finding in the Attorney General’s investigation.”

Allred, asked to respond to those refutations, made clear she never said David undertook those actions in responding to the Blade’s question on his actions as described in the New York attorney general report.

“I never stated that Mr. David provided any documents to the media concerning any Cuomo accuser, nor did I ever state that Mr. David took any employee personnel file or records,” Allred said.

The situation with David continues to leave the Human Rights Campaign in turmoil After a tense staff meeting last week, another meeting with David, the board and staff took place over the phone on Tuesday that was emotional and confrontational, sources familiar with the meeting told the Blade.

David spoke at the beginning, reiterated his denial of wrongdoing, was emotional, but mostly stepped aside so others could talk, sources said. Michael Vazquez, an HRC staffer who has worked on faith organizing for the LGBTQ group, announced he is leaving, citing a culture of bullying and harassment, sources said.

A representative for the Human Rights Campaign, asked to comment on the meeting, confirmed it took place, but said it was a regularly scheduled staff meeting.

It’s unclear whether the situation will have any major impact on the ability of the nation’s leading LGBTQ group to conduct its mission, or whether its fundraising efforts have suffered, which could lead to layoffs for an organization already experiencing high turnover.

The HRC representative referred the Blade to an earlier statement on the matter when asked about changes in fundraising or plans for layoffs.

“This investigation will in no way hinder the organizations’ continued pursuit of the critical work necessary to bring equity and liberation to the LGBTQ+ community,” the representative said.

Allred, in addition to representing women in sexual assault cases, has been an advocate for LGBTQ rights and represented a same-sex couple in California that won marriage rights in the state in 2008 before they were taken away by Proposition 8 and later restored by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The White House

White House hosts roundtable with transgender youth

Friday was International Transgender Day of Visibility

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Upwards of 1,000 people took part in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. The White House on the same day held a roundtable with young trans and nonbinary people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House said in a statement released Saturday said Presidential Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy “hosted a roundtable at the White House Friday about the joys, hopes and challenges that transgender children are experiencing.”

The roundtable took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was one of the largest in years.

Huge crowds gathered in cities across the U.S. in celebrations of visibility and protest as over 450 bills that target queer and trans youth are under consideration or have been passed by state legislatures.

“Transgender kids and their parents traveled to the White House from states that have attacked the rights of transgender kids, including Arizona, Texas and Virginia, and shared the devastating effects these political attacks are having on their mental health and wellbeing,” reads a White House readout of the roundtable. 

“As one round table participant shared, it feels scary when the politicians elected to represent you don’t care about your wellbeing. Families participating in today’s roundtable also highlighted that transgender kids can thrive when parents love and affirm their transgender children, and when transgender kids have access to the support they need at school and in their communities,” it notes. “Ambassador Rice and Dr. Murthy reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing up for the rights of transgender kids and their parents, and to challenging state laws that harm transgender kids. They also thanked the families for their unwavering advocacy and bravery in challenging these discriminatory laws.”

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Florida

Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee

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More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Department appeals federal judge’s ACA ruling

Decision impacts PrEP, other preventative health services

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The Pride flag over the Justice Department's D.C. headquarters (Photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

Justice Department attorneys filed a notice of appeal Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that employers cannot be forced to cover specified preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act.

Thursday’s ruling means that more than 150 million Americans on employer-sponsored health plans will lose some cost-free coverage for immunizations, contraception, cancer screenings and PrEP.

O’Connor’s ruling struck down the recommendations that have been issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the preventive care treatments provisions required by the ACA directing insurers provide at no cost to the patient.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on the Justice Department decision to appeal:

“The president is glad to see the Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s decision, which blocks a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that has ensured free access to preventive health care for 150 million Americans. This case is yet another attack on the Affordable Care Act, which has been the law of the land for 13 years and survived three challenges before the Supreme Court.
 
Preventive care saves lives, saves families money, and protects and improves our health. Because of the ACA, millions of Americans have access to free cancer and heart disease screenings. This decision threatens to jeopardize critical care.
 
The administration will continue to fight to improve health care and make it more affordable for hard-working families, even in the face of attacks from special interests.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein decried O’Connor’s ruling saying:

“Stripping away access to preventive care will hurt tens of millions of Americans. These services are essential, and eliminating them will have dangerous consequences. While we expect this unconstitutional ruling ultimately will fail, the decision creates uncertainty and is a threat to public health.

“With this devastating ruling, a Trump-appointed judge placed the health of millions of Americans in extreme danger, based on an extremist political agenda. Undermining screenings and treatment for cancer, blood pressure, pregnancy, and mental health doesn’t just hurt individuals — it damages the health of the entire country,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener said.

“The effect of this decision on HIV prevention will be disastrous. In recent years, we’ve made incredible progress reducing the number of new HIV infections, largely because hundreds of thousands of people are now taking PrEP, an HIV prevention drug proven to be essentially 100 percent effective. This decision reverses that progress by allowing health plans to charge patients through the nose for this life-saving medication, raising barriers to access for the communities of LGBTQ people and people of color most at risk. Judge O’Connor will soon have thousands of new HIV cases on his conscience,” Wiener added.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, released the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a ruling from O’Connor:

“Judge Reed O’Connor, already having attempted to invalidate the Affordable Care Act as a whole in 2018, has once again issued a ruling that puts the lives of Americans in danger. Preventive care is essential in helping to screen for potential severe health conditions and attempt to mitigate them — this ruling affects screenings for cancer, diabetes, STDs, cardiovascular disease, and so much more.

More than 150 million Americans currently have private insurance with coverage for preventive care under the ACA, yet a partisan judge in Texas is attempting to single handedly rollback access to these basic health care services. Equality California is committed to ensuring that these critical preventive services remain in place for the health of all Americans. We expect an appeal of this decision immediately. 

Thankfully, most health plans in California are unaffected by today’s ruling because existing state law already requires health plans regulated in California to cover preventive services without cost sharing. Today’s ruling may affect a small subset of employer-sponsored health plans that are not regulated by the state.

Equality California is proud to be sponsoring legislation with Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, AB (Assembly Bill) 1645, which will strengthen existing law and go even further to ensure that Californians have access to essential preventive services, including STD screening and PrEP for HIV prevention. While right-wing judges and politicians are attempting to roll back our rights and inflict harm on LGBTQ+ people, California will continue doubling down to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Read the notice of appeal here:

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