After a damning report on sexual misconduct allegations that forced Andrew Cuomo to resign as governor of New York and that ensnared the Human Rights Campaign president for having a potential role in the cover-up, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group has arranged for a law firm to conduct an independent review of its president’s role in the scandal — but legal experts see a conflict of interest looming over the process.
Sidley Austin LLP, the law firm chosen to conduct the review, has a self-described “long standing pro-bono relationship” with the Human Rights Campaign and was chief among its legal partners announced in October 2019 for a new direction to litigation in LGBTQ advocacy, which was an engagement David undertook when he took the helm as president.
In fact, Sidley issued a news statement hailing its participation in the agreement with the Human Rights Campaign and six other law firms, which Sidley described as an “alliance” designed to “help shape state and federal laws, regulations and policies and the application of constitutional principles.”
“We’re looking forward to working with the Human Rights Campaign on strategic litigation that will take on discriminatory measures targeting LGBTQ people,” Carter Phillips, partner at Sidley, is quoted as saying in the statement. “HRC is a long-standing pro bono client and this next stage of collaboration reinforces Sidley’s deep commitment to advocating for diversity and equality.”
As a result of the 2019 announcement, which was brokered soon after David took the helm of the Human Rights Campaign, some legal experts see a conflict of interest that undermines the perception of impartiality in Sidley’s ongoing review and could color any finding of no wrongdoing, which would arguably be in the interests of all parties involved in the review.
Brenner Fissell, a law professor who teaches legal ethics at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., told the Blade the independent review Sidley is undertaking “appears less than credible.”
“This is not even a relationship where they engaged them once,” Fissell said. “Sidley in the press release calls HRC a long-standing pro bono client, and they’re also doing PR for them. I mean, they’re really inextricably connected, right?”
The imbroglio with the Human Rights Campaign president began when New York Attorney General Letitia James issued her report finding Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing as many as 11 women on the job. David, who before taking over as Human Rights Campaign president was counselor to the governor of New York, was named nearly a dozen times in the report.
David has continued to deny wrongdoing. However, the findings indicate after his tenure as counselor to Cuomo, he kept the personnel file of an employee accusing the governor of sexual misconduct, then assisted in returning that file to Cuomo staffers seeking to leak it to the media in an attempt to discredit her. (A representative has disputed the characterization of material David kept as a personnel file, saying it was memorandum on an internal employment matter David kept because he, in part, worked on it.)
Further, the report finds David allegedly said he would help find individuals to sign their names to a draft op-ed that sought to discredit the survivor but went unpublished, although he wouldn’t sign the document himself. Also, the report indicates David was involved in the discussions about secretly calling and recording a call between a former staffer and another survivor in a separate effort to smear her.
In response, David said he agreed to help with only one version of the letter that was more positive in nature and his part of the discussion about recording a survivor was limited to his role as counselor.
Although the Human Rights Campaign board has stood by David and announced on the day after the report came out it has renewed his contract for another five years, last week it announced an independent investigation to resolve the matter. The investigation would be conducted by Sidley and last no longer than 30 days. David has publicly endorsed the review.
But the pre-existing close relationship between Sidley and the Human Rights Campaign has left some legal observers questioning the merits of the investigation.
Fissell said no ethical rules are in place for conducting independent investigations per se, especially because Sidley has never represented David before as a client. As a result, Fissell said there is likely no technical violation of ethics rules over conflict of interest in this scenario.
The only real framework for independent investigations that could be a model of the review for this situation, Fissell said, is found in the handbook for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Among the factors considered in such investigations, Fissell said, is whether outside counsel conducting the review had previously done work for a company or if management previously engaged such counsel.
“If you had previously engaged such counsel, that makes it less independent,” Fissell said. “So the answer to your question is, this is not good if you want to do a truly independent investigation.”
Fissell also questioned why 30 days was selected as the time limit for the investigation, which he said seems artificial and could limit findings.
Sidley didn’t respond to repeated email requests from the Blade for answers to a series of written questions on the independent investigation and its pre-existing relationship with the Human Rights Campaign, including whether or not Phillips, the attorney quoted in the news statement would participate in the ongoing review.
A Human Rights Campaign representative, however, responded to similar inquiries from the Blade with a series of bullet points essentially denying any conflict of interest and standing by the decision to charge Sidley with the investigation.
The representative in the bullet points said the Human Rights Campaign chose Sidley “because of its vast experience in internal investigations and reviews” and is “grateful that Sidley has always represented us on a pro bono basis, including in this matter.”
“Sidley has not represented HRC on any matter related to any of the issues in the current internal investigation that Sidley is conducting,” the representative said.
The Human Rights Campaign representative said Sidley is one of many firms that has worked for the LGBTQ organization, but has “never represented Alphonso David on any matter.” In conducting the investigation, the representative said Sidley reports to an independent Board of Directors for the Human Rights Campaign.
Michael Frisch, an ethics counsel and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, told the Blade a law firm being charged with conducting an investigation for an entity after having a previous relationship with it is “always potentially a problem.”
“When any outside entity is retained to conduct an independent review, it has to be truly independent,” Frisch said. “To me, if you’re going to conduct an independent inquiry. Your bonafides to give independent advice in a report is always subject of concern, and one should be above reproach in those situations.”
Frisch, asked if the potential for a conflict is present in Sidley’s investigation of the Human Rights Campaign president, said he couldn’t directly opine on that without knowing all the details about the situation.
“You analyze any conflict of interest from the point of view of is there a substantial risk that the lawyers’ advice will be colored by some interest, other than the client who’s getting the advice,” Frisch said. “The magic language in the rule is substantial risk of material limitation, that’s essentially the test. Every client is entitled to independent advice.”
Asked if a law firm like Sidley could take any internal steps to mitigate the appearance of conflict of interest while continuing to conduct an independent investigation, Frisch said those options, such as walls or ethical screens, aren’t in play here.
“Those kinds of mechanisms to defeat conflicts don’t sound like they’re applicable in this kind of situation because it doesn’t really sound like client-client conflicts,” Frisch said. “A report is not like litigation in that there are parties and opposing counsel and things of that nature that you would have obligations to.”
Frisch concluded: “So that’s where I kind of get back to the key is is it a truly independent report, and if the drafters of the report are compromised by other interests, that always leaves the report open to criticism on that basis.”
A representative for David, who previously pushed back on conclusions of wrongdoing by David based on the report, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. Meanwhile, David’s mention in the AG report continues to leave the nation’s leading LGBTQ group in turmoil. Amid reports staffers have called on David to resign, lesbian tennis legend Martina Navratilova — who has previously come under fire for views against transgender women in sports — publicly called for David’s resignation in a podcast interview with the progressive news outlet Raw Story.
Last week, David posted to his Twitter account an open letter from “colleagues and friends” in support of him. Days later, the Blade was forwarded an open letter from “Real HRC Staffers” addressing a separate “communication” that went out from other employees calling for David’s resignation. The open letter asserts David is being unfairly maligned and calls for signatures in support of his presidency.
“It is disheartening to see how the leadership of a Black queer man is being criticized by and vilified in the media and within our own organization at a time of racial reckoning in America and globally,” the letter said. “Worse, is to witness the scapegoating of Alphonso and others who are now being made to answer for the behaviors of powerful white men.”
Fissell, meanwhile, told the Blade the Human Rights Campaign would be better suited going elsewhere for a law firm to conduct the investigation if it wanted real answers about its president in the Cuomo affair.
“If they’re truly committed to demonstrating that they want to have an independent investigation, they would find someone else,” Fissell said.
Texas House approves anti-trans youth sports bill
HB 25 now heads to state Senate
Texas House Republicans were able to push through the anti-trans youth sports measure Thursday evening after hours of emotional and at times rancorous debate, passing the bill in a 76-54 vote along party lines.
Under the provisions of Texas House Bill 25, all trans student athletes in grades K-12 will be prohibited from competing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity. The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.
The Texas Tribune reported that the University Interscholastic League, which governs school sports in Texas, already requires that an athlete’s gender be determined by the sex listed on their birth certificate. Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, the author of HB 25 has said the bill would simply “codify” existing UIL rules.
However, UIL recognizes any legally modified birth certificates. That policy could accommodate someone who may have had their birth certificate changed to match their gender identity, which can sometimes be an arduous process.
HB 25 would not allow recognition of these legally modified birth certificates unless changes were made because of a clerical error. It’s not clear though how it will be determined if a birth certificate has been legally modified or not. According to the UIL, the process for checking student birth certificates is left up to schools and districts, not the UIL the Tribune reported.
“To say that tonight’s passage of HB 25 is devastating is an understatement. For the past 10 grueling, exhausting, and deeply traumatic months, trans youth have been forced to debate their very existence—only to be met by the deaf ears and averted eyes of our state’s leaders,” Landon Richie, a GenderCool Project leader, University of Houston student and Transactivist told the Washington Blade after the vote.
“Make no mistake: This bill will not only have detrimental impacts on trans youth, who already suffer immense levels of harassment and bullying in schools, but also on cisgender youth who don’t conform to Texas’s idea of ‘male’ or ‘female.’ To trans kids everywhere: you belong, you are loved, you are valued, you are deserving of dignity, respect, care and the ability to live freely as your true and authentic selves, no matter where you are. We will never stop fighting for trans lives and a future where trans kids are unequivocally and unwaveringly celebrated for who they are,” Richie said.
“The cruelty of this bill is breathtaking, and the legislators who are pushing it forward are doing irreparable harm to our state. Texas is a place where people value freedom and respect for diversity. This bill is a betrayal of those cherished values, and future generations will look back on this moment in disbelief that elected officials supported such an absurd and hateful measure,” Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights told the Blade. “The families of these kids deserve better, and the burden is now on the rest of us to do everything in our power to stop this dangerous bill now,” he added.
During the debate on the measure, state Rep. James Talarico, (D-Round Rock), a former middle school teacher, began his remarks by apologizing to the trans kids and families who have gone to the Capitol time and time again this year. He tells the chamber he speaks now as a legislator, and educator, and a Christian.
He quoted Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, the author of HB 25 who said “if one girl wins a game, it’s worth it.” He says he has a different moral yardstick. “If one trans kid dies for a trophy, this bill is grotesque.”
He ended speaking to his “fellow believers” in the chamber. “The worst part in these hearings have been in hearing the Bible used against trans kids to support these bills. Even tonight, ‘God’s law’ was used to present an amendment.” He then quoted the first two lines of the Bible, where God is referred to with two different Hebrew words, one masculine/one feminine. “God is non-binary.” He then prevented an interruption in the chamber and continued telling trans kids that he loves them.
Fellow Democratic state Rep. Jessica González, (D-Dallas County), vice-chair of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus asked the chamber how many trans Texas kids they are willing to hurt. She reminded her fellow representatives that cisgender women and girls will also be hurt by the bill. She shared a personal story about being outed in high school by a friend, having her locker, home, and car vandalized and losing all of her friends. “Kids are cruel.”
González told lawmakers that her brother encouraged her to try out for soccer, and she was bullied with comments like “shouldn’t she be trying out for the boys’ team.” She went from feeling a bit accepted to being an outsider again. She then reflected on carrying those feelings into adulthood and said that this bill will have long-term affects on trans kids. She asked legislators to listen to the stories of the trans kids who have bravely testified, saying kids will contemplate suicide or complete suicide.
Representative Diego Bernal, (D-San Antonio), told the chamber that some representatives can’t wrap their heads around knowing that there is no problem but there is *real* harm to trans kids, and for whatever reason, that’s not enough it seems to stop moving these bills.
He said that he has heard “if they already have mental health issues and suicide ideation, this can’t make it worse” and “if the debate is harming them, let’s just vote.” The he breaks down the Texas statute’s definition of bullying, telling lawmakers, “The bullying statute doesn’t have an intent requirement. It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean to cause them harm. We are bullying these students. Know that by law … our own definitions and our own words, we are. And we don’t have to.”
“Texas lawmakers voted today to deliberately discriminate against transgender children. Excluding transgender students from participating in sports with their peers violates the Constitution and puts already vulnerable youth at serious risk of mental and emotional harm,” Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas said in a statement to the Blade.
“There is no evidence that transgender kids pose any threat. It is indefensible that legislators would force transgender youth and their families to travel to Austin to defend their own humanity, then blatantly ignore hours of testimony about the real damage this bill causes. Trans kids and their families deserve our love and support—they’ve been fighting this legislation for months. Texans will hold lawmakers accountable for their cruelty,” she added.
The statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas in a tweet after the vote said; ” We will not stop fighting to protect transgender children.” Then added “We’ll continue to educate lawmakers—replacing misinformation with real stories—and demand the statewide and federal nondiscrimination protections we need to prevent further harms.”
We’ll continue to educate lawmakers — replacing misinformation with real stories — and demand the statewide and federal nondiscrimination protections we need to prevent further harms.— Equality Texas (@EqualityTexas) October 15, 2021
LGBTQ Youth web resource gone after Texas GOP candidate complained
Removal of the LGBTQ youth resource webpage appeared to be strictly political the Houston Chronicle reported
AUSTIN – A late August video tweet from a wealthy Dallas-based real estate development company executive and conservative Republican gubernatorial challenger, blamed fellow Republican incumbent Texas Governor Greg Abbott for endorsing an LGBTQ+ agenda, because of the existence of a state online resource webpage for LGBTQ youth.
Within hours it was pulled down by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, (DFPS) the agency responsible for the page.
In an article published Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that Don Huffines claimed tax dollars were being used to “advocate for transgender ideology.” Huffines also went on to say that DFPS was publishing “disturbing information about our youth.”
“They’re talking about helping empower and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, non-heterosexual behavior. I mean really? This is Texas. These are not Texas values. These are not Republican Party values, but these are obviously Greg Abbott’s values,”
A message on the website states that the previous content is now under review.
According to the Chronicle, the website for the Texas Youth Connection, a division of Family and Protective Services that steers young people to various resources, including education, housing and those on its LGBTQ page as they prepare for life after foster care. It was replaced by a message that states, “The Texas Youth Connection website has been temporarily disabled for a comprehensive review of its content. This is being done to ensure that its information, resources, and referrals are current.”
LGBTQ+ activists and advocates are furious. Among the resources on the page for LGBTQ+ youth were critical information including for housing and information for suicide prevention and crisis assistance.
GenderCool Youth Leader, Trans rights activist and University of Houston student Landon Richie told the Blade Tuesday;
“This is deplorable. To Governor Abbott, LGBTQ+ youth are nothing more than pawns on a political chessboard. Despite his cries of protection and fairness in justification of this session’s unprecedented attacks on LGBTQ+ — especially trans — youth, it has never truly been about any of those things; it has always been about his power.
Now more than ever, LGBTQ+ youth deserve safety, protection, support, and affirmation from the state — this year alone, the Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support, as a result of this legislative session. LGBTQ+ youth deserve better than to be treated like they are as easily discardable as a webpage,” Richie said.
Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights reacted telling the Blade in an emailed statement:
“Helping LGBTQ youth and their families prevent suicide is not a partisan issue, and any elected official who seeks to make it one has lost any sense of shame. This action by Governor Abbott is appalling and will needlessly harm vulnerable children and families who urgently need support.”
Removal of the page appeared to be strictly political the Chronicle reported.
Patrick Crimmins, the department spokesman, told the Chronicle that the review “is still ongoing” but declined to answer questions seeking more detail about why the website was removed or whether it had anything to do with Huffines.
“But Family and Protective Services communications obtained through a public records request show that agency employees discussed removing the “Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation” page in response to Huffines’ tweet, shortly before taking it offline,” the paper wrote.
More telling was the events leading the page’s removal said the paper:
“Thirteen minutes after Huffines’ video went up, media relations director Marissa Gonzales emailed a link to Crimmins, the agency’s communications director, under the subject line “Don Huffines video accusing Gov/DFPS of pushing liberal transgender agenda.”
“FYI. This is starting to blow up on Twitter,” Gonzales wrote.
Crimmins then queried Darrell Azar, DFPS’ web and creative services director, about who oversees the page. “Darrell — please note we may need to take that page down, or somehow revise content,” he wrote.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth weighed in on the Chronicle’s reporting in an emailed statement to the Blade.
“LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system — and those who have been in foster care report significantly higher rates of attempting suicide. It is unconscionable that the Texas state government would actively remove vital suicide prevention resources from its website for the sole purpose of appeasing a rival politician. Mental health and suicide prevention are nonpartisan,” said Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs. “This story sends a terrible message to LGBTQ youth in Texas and will only contribute to the internalization of stigma and shame. We should be expanding access to support services for this group, not erasing what resources LGBTQ youth have to reach out for help.”
The Chronicle reported that the deleted webpage also included links to the Texas chapters of PFLAG, a nationwide LGBTQ organization; a “national youth talk line” to discuss gender and sexual identity and various other issues; and LGBTQ legal services.
Huffines said the page also linked to a website operated by the Human Rights Campaign, a politically active LGBTQ advocacy group that he called “the Planned Parenthood of LGBT issues.”
- Between January 1 and August 30, 2021, The Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts (calls, texts, and chats) from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support. More than 3,900 of those crisis contacts (36%) came from transgender or nonbinary youth.
- Crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas seeking support have grown over 150% when compared to the same time period in 2020.
- While this volume of crisis contacts can not be attributed to any one factor (or bill), a qualitative analysis of the crisis contacts found that:
- Transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas have directly stated that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state.
- Some transgender and nonbinary youth have expressed fear over losing access to sports that provide important acceptance in their lives.
- The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
- The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered.
LGBTQ resources were removed from Texas’ child welfare agency website after Don Huffines criticized their existence there, emails show.— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) October 13, 2021
Democratic state senators urged Gov. Greg Abbott and the agency commissioner to reinstate them on Tuesday. https://t.co/koCgoUUJG0
Colorado first state to require transgender care as essential health benefit
Biden officials sign off on change for state insurers
Colorado has become the first state in the country to include transition-related care for transgender people as part of the requirements for essential health care in the state, the Biden administration announced on Tuesday.
As part of the change, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved the state’s request to provide gender-affirming care in the individual and small group health insurance markets as part of Colorado’s Essential Health Benefit benchmark.
Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said in a statement the change is consistent with the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating barriers faced by transgender people in access in health care, including transition-related coverage.
“Health care should be in reach for everyone; by guaranteeing transgender individuals can access recommended care, we’re one step closer to making this a reality,” Becerra said in a statement. “I am proud to stand with Colorado to remove barriers that have historically made it difficult for transgender people to access health coverage and medical care.”
According to HHS, Colorado plan will require insurers to cover a wider range of services for transgender people in addition to benefits already covered, such as eye and lid modifications, face tightening, facial bone remodeling for facial feminization, breast/chest construction and reductions, and laser hair removal.
In addition to these changes, Colorado s also adding EHBs in the benchmark plan to include mental wellness exams and expanded coverage for 14 prescription drug classes, according to the HHS. These changes, per HHS, will take effect beginning on Jan. 1, 2023.
CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a statement health care should be “accessible, affordable and delivered equitably to all, regardless of your sexual orientation” (notably leaving out gender identity from that quote).
“To truly break down barriers to care, we must expand access to the full scope of health care, including gender-affirming surgery and other treatments, for people who rely on coverage through Medicare, Medicaid & CHIP and the Marketplaces,” Brooks-LaSure said. “Colorado’s expansion of their essential health benefits to include gender-affirming surgery and other treatments is a model for other states to follow and we invite other states to follow suit.”
According to the Washington Post, Biden administration signed off on the change before officials made the announcement Tuesday in Denver in an event with Gov, Jared Polis, the first openly gay man elected governor in the United States.
Katie Keith, a lawyer and co-founder of Out2Enroll, is quoted in the Washington Post as saying despite the change significant issues remains for transgender people in health care.
“There’s been significant progress, but we’ve seen exclusions by some health plans — it got worse under the Trump administration — and that’s why it’s important to see states like Colorado stepping up to fill those gaps,” Keith is quoted as saying.
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