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‘Less than credible’: Investigation of HRC prez dismissed as conflict of interest

Sidley Austin LLP has pre-exisitng relationship with LGBTQ group

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hate crimes, gay news, Washington Blade

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.

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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