The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former lobbyist accuses Rep. Tom Reed, a potential Cuomo challenger, of sexual misconduct

Nicolette Davis, a commissioned officer in the Army, has accused Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) of sexual misconduct. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)

Nicolette Davis said she was 25, on her first networking trip as a junior lobbyist for an insurance company, when she felt the 45-year-old congressman’s hand on her back. She and other lobbyists had gathered at an Irish pub in Minneapolis after a day of ice fishing, Davis told The Washington Post, and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y) was seated to her left.

“A drunk congressman is rubbing my back,” she texted a friend and co-worker at Aflac that evening in 2017, adding later, “HELP HELP.”

Reed, his hand outside her blouse, briefly fumbled with her bra before unhooking it by pinching the clasp, Davis told The Post. He moved his hand to her thigh, inching upward, she said.

Frozen in fear, she said, she asked the person sitting to her right for help. He obliged by pulling the congressman away from the table and out of the restaurant, Davis said.

Reed declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to a detailed list of questions, he said in a statement provided by his office: “This account of my actions is not accurate.”

Davis’s account comes at a time when Reed is considering a run against New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who is facing calls to resign after multiple women, mostly former state employees, accused him of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior. Reed, who has described combating sexual violence and harassment as one of his priorities in Congress, recently argued that Cuomo should be impeached.

In February, after a second Cuomo aide accused the governor of harassment, Reed said: “These incidents of sexual harassment and pattern of abuse are abhorrent and have absolutely no place in our society, let alone the highest rungs of government. Such behavior is disturbing and unacceptable.”

Davis contacted The Post through a newsroom tip line on Feb. 11, more than a week before Reed said on Fox News that he is “seriously considering” challenging the governor in 2022 and nearly two weeks before the allegations against Cuomo began gaining traction.

She said her decision to tell her story about Reed has nothing to do with the governor’s race. Now 29, she is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Okla. With her graduation from field artillery school approaching later this month, she has been thinking about the kind of platoon leader she wants to be, she said.

“I need to always act in good conscience and set the right example for the soldiers I will lead, including younger females,” she said of her decision to speak out. “I hope it will allow people who have endured similar experiences to feel confident enough to say something.”

Last year, Davis filed a complaint accusing a military recruiter of making unwanted sexual advances. An Army review “did not substantiate findings” of sexual harassment. But the investigator recommended training for recruitment personnel, and the accused service member was not allowed to continue working as a recruiter, according to an August 2020 letter from the U.S. Army to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who inquired on Davis’s behalf.

Davis’s account of Reed’s actions in 2017 was supported by a person who was at the table that night. The person told The Post that Reed was visibly intoxicated and put his hand on Davis’s back before being escorted from the restaurant while the rest of the group remained. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing potential career ramifications.

Davis said that when she returned to Washington after the weekend trip, she immediately shared more details with the co-worker she had texted, Jessica Strieter Elting.

In an interview, Strieter Elting said Davis told her about the congressman touching her back and tugging at and unhooking her bra.

“She was really shaken by it,” said Strieter Elting, who runs Aflac’s political affairs team in Washington, D.C. “I felt horrible for her, being in that position while trying to do her job.”

Strieter Elting urged Davis to tell her supervisor at Aflac, then-vice president and counsel Brad Knox.

Knox, now a senior vice president at Aflac, said he recalled Davis telling him that Reed had been drinking and unbuttoned or unzipped an article of her clothing. Knox said he asked Davis if she wanted to file a complaint with the House Ethics Committee, and she declined.

“I felt like crying because nobody should be subjected to that, especially a new young lobbyist,” he said.

Since his election to Congress in 2010, Reed has been outspoken on issues of sexual misconduct. He published an essay four years later in the Huffington Post about his commitment to the international “No More” campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence.

When the #MeToo movement gained traction in late 2017, Reed rallied behind a House resolution that required lawmakers and staff to undergo training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. “Sexual harassment training is a basic requirement in my office,” he said in a statement at the time. “All members of my staff, including myself, have taken the training.”

Over the next year, more than a half-dozen members of Congress were forced to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct. Reed backed bipartisan legislation in 2018, which passed by unanimous consent, that required lawmakers to be personally liable for settlements with staffers who alleged harassment.

Asked how his advocacy for women can be reconciled with Davis’s allegations, Reed said in his statement to The Post, “I stand by my record.”

His office referred The Post to Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of center-right Republicans to which Reed belongs. Chamberlain said she was on the Minnesota trip in 2017 but was not in the pub with Reed that night. Chamberlain said she has attended many events with the congressman over the past 20 years and has never seen him drink heavily or touch anyone inappropriately.

“I’ve never experienced anything except professionalism with him,” she said.

In the past month, more than a half-dozen women have come forward to accuse Cuomo of harassment and unwanted sexual advances, ranging from kisses and hugs to questions about their sex life. One woman’s complaint that he groped her under her blouse was referred to local police.

Reed initially joined a throng of New York politicians in calling for Cuomo to resign. When the governor refused, the congressman argued for impeachment.

Reed and two other House Republicans from New York, Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin, have said they are contemplating bids to challenge Cuomo. Reed is a co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 56 House members, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, that looks for compromise on key issues.

Throughout the pandemic, Reed has been a prominent critic of a Cuomo policy that led nursing homes to accept thousands of covid-19 patients from overcrowded hospitals, possibly exacerbating the spread of the disease. The Cuomo administration is also accused of misleading the public about the extent of nursing home deaths.

Cuomo has denied touching women “inappropriately” but apologized for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He has also defended his nursing home policies, saying he was following guidance from the federal government, and he has insisted the death count was accurate.

Cuomo’s behavior created ‘hostile’ and ‘toxic’ workplace for decades.

Back in January 2017, Davis was anxious about representing Aflac on the weekend trip to benefit the campaign committee of then-Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) but excited to prove her mettle, she said. She said she didn’t know any of the dozens of donors, lobbyists and other Capitol Hill insiders on the trip, which included a Friday night dinner in Minneapolis and ice fishing Saturday at Lake Minnetonka.

Davis, who was married at the time, said she was briefly introduced to Reed at the lake on Saturday afternoon. She said he appeared intoxicated, and once slipped and fell on the ice.

After the group returned to their hotel, Davis changed from a sweatshirt into a blouse, with a camisole underneath. A couple lobbyists invited her to nearby Kieran’s Irish Pub for food and drinks.

Reed and a few others were already there, Davis said. She said she was excited to be seated next to Reed, a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Davis said she was stunned when Reed touched her back and leg. She said she was too scared to say anything or look in his direction.

“I was also angry,” she said. “I had wanted to go on this trip so badly but at that time, it didn’t matter that I had been working hard or that I had a master’s degree. All that mattered was that I was a warm female body.”

She texted Strieter Elting to complain about Reed rubbing her back and about a fellow lobbyist who she said was flirting with her.

“No, no, no!!’’ Strieter Elting responded, in an exchange she provided to The Post. “Would you like for me to call with an emergency?’’

“I’m okay now!’’ Davis texted back. “A nice person saved me. Thank you!!’’

Once Reed was steered out of the restaurant, Davis said she went into the bathroom to refasten her bra.

She said she now regrets her decision not to bring the matter to the ethics committee. “I was afraid I would become ‘that girl’ who made a mess of things for a member, and that no one would ever want to associate with me,” she said.

In 2020, she left Aflac to pursue a lifelong dream and enlist in the Army.

Before speaking publicly about Reed, Davis notified her commanding officers and the Army’s Office of Public Affairs. Davis said the Army referred her statement about Reed to the Minneapolis Police Department, and that officers called her in recent days to follow up. She said she told police she stood by her statement but was not seeking to have Reed charged with a crime.

Knox and Strieter Elting each said they were also contacted by police, and Strieter Elting said she turned over the text message exchange. The police department declined to comment.

Davis said police later told her their inquiry had been closed.

Davis described herself as a lifelong Democrat but said her allegations against Reed are not politically motivated. She said she has volunteered for a few Democratic campaigns. Public records show she has contributed $2,500 total in varying amounts to one Republican and four Democratic members of Congress. She also gave $750 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

“I would be speaking out even if Reed was a Democrat,” Davis said. “I very much support holding members accountable irrespective of party affiliation who have something like this in their past.”

More than a year after the Minneapolis trip, with Knox’s support, Davis became a founding member of a sexual harassment task force comprising leaders of several government affairs groups. Davis said she worked with the group to develop recommendations “to protect professionals from sexual harassment as well as begin the process of changing the current culture in Washington.” She never mentioned the episode with Reed.

A former mayor of Corning, N.Y., Reed represents the 23rd Congressional District, which includes the city of Ithaca.

Reed was among only three Republicans to support prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He is the only Republican among the 97 co-sponsors of a resolution that aims to expedite passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and he was among only four Republicans who voted for the measure this week.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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