The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The people she told: How bystanders grappled — or didn’t — with a story of sexual harassment

Mark Halperin at a panel discussion in Washington in May. One of his accusers had shared her story of harassment with friends and colleagues for years while his career soared. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Showtime)

Sexual harassment typically lurks in the shadows — and yet it’s rarely a secret. One woman says she was assaulted by a prominent journalist and that she told her friends about it. And she told his colleagues.

She told her boyfriend, who interacted with the journalist professionally. And she told one of the man’s closest collaborators.

As her career progressed and her professional circle widened, the woman says she told and retold the story about her bizarre and violent encounter with Mark Halperin, the longtime political director for ABC News, cable pundit and best-selling author, whenever his name came up.

Many of those she told were shocked, she said. But no one, to the best of her knowledge, reported it to Halperin’s employers, or police, or confronted Halperin himself.

The story was whispered, without evident effect, for nearly two decades. It was only this fall that Halperin was fired by several employers after news reports describing years of behavior toward several women he acknowledged was "aggressive and crude."

At a time when several industries have been racked by almost daily revelations of chronic sexual harassment, there is now a reckoning not just for victims and the accused but for the bystanders — friends and colleagues who knew, on some level, what was going on.

Some have expressed regret that they didn’t do more when they learned of troubling behavior, sometimes years before accusers went public.

Quentin Tarantino acknowledged that several actresses had told him about Harvey Weinstein's alleged abuses. "I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard," the director told the New York Times in October. The Vox media company acknowledged after it booted its former editorial director, Lockhart Steele, that in hindsight, "there were stronger steps the company should have taken."

Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson admitted she should have confronted her former boss, Michael Oreskes, when she learned nearly 20 years ago he was allegedly harassing a junior colleague. Louis C.K.'s longtime manager, Dave Becky, and Charlie Rose's executive producer, Yvette Vega, have both said they should have done something about what they knew, too.

Few bystanders have paid the price that Billy Bush did after the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape starring Donald Trump surfaced in October of last year. Bush said he was "embarrassed and ashamed" for playing along with Trump's "locker-room banter"; he was fired as a "Today" host shortly after the tape appeared, and his career hasn't recovered.

Yet many who were privy to whispers about harassment say they struggled to figure out exactly what to do with this knowledge. The husband of a woman who accused another man of harassment said it was miserable to watch the man’s career rise for 20 years, knowing how he had treated her.

“Every time that person appeared on [TV as a pundit] it was like a giant f--- you to us,” he said. His response was to collect information that eventually helped lead to the man’s exposure and firing. “I wish I could have done more,” he said. “But I don’t know what that would be.”

‘I don’t want to sit on your lap,’ she thought. But, she alleges, Mark Halperin insisted.

The woman who told her friends about Halperin shared with them an incident she says occurred almost 20 years ago. Just out of college, she sought career advice from Halperin, whom she had met while she was a White House intern and he was political director at ABC News. They had lunch in New York, she said, and as they stood outside the restaurant afterward, Halperin suddenly threw her up against the plate-glass facade and pinned her arms against it. Then he lunged at her, mouth agape, “like someone who was going to eat you.” She said she slipped his grip, wriggled free and got away.

Later that day, said the woman — who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this report to protect her family’s privacy — Halperin called. She assumed he would apologize. Instead, “he said, ‘No one will ever hire you. You have no experience. I don’t know what you thought I could do for you.’ ” She said she found his tone chilling.

As Halperin’s career soared, the inaction among her friends and colleagues made the woman feel “as if I did something wrong, or maybe that I had imagined the whole thing. I wanted to feel validated and heard at the very least.”

Many of them instead courted Halperin, celebrated him and attached themselves to his rising star, she said.

They maintained their association with him as he became one of the most prominent political commentators of his time, a near-conglomerate with book deals (the best-selling "Game Change"), TV deals (series on Bloomberg TV and Showtime), and frequent guest-commentary appearances, most recently on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

It was only in the wake of revelations about Weinstein in October that Halperin's accusers, including the woman in this report, felt empowered to come forward and describe Halperin's alleged misconduct to reporters. Halperin denies the woman's specific accusation; through a spokesman, he said he has never assaulted anyone.

Among the people the woman said she told about Halperin was an old boyfriend, Michael Feldman, a prominent political consultant. Even after learning about the incident from her in 2004, Feldman, a former senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore, invited Halperin to join the couple on a dinner date, she said. Appalled that he would propose such an encounter with a man she had described as her abuser, the woman refused to join them for dinner. Her relationship with Feldman ended soon after.

Asked about the woman’s account, Feldman declined to comment.

Another person she said she informed was John Heilemann, Halperin's collaborator on "Game Change" and other projects. She said she told Heilemann about Halperin in 2007.

Thereafter, Heilemann intensified his professional relationship with Halperin; they went on to earn millions of dollars from their joint book and TV projects.

Since Halperin's exposure as an alleged serial sexual harasser, Heilemann has denied any knowledge of Halperin's misconduct. He told the New York Times this fall that he "was flabbergasted and shocked" by the various allegations.

“I had never heard of, been exposed to or had any inkling of the notion that he had engaged in any behavior that could be described in even the broadest sense of being sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Heilemann told the newspaper.

The woman insists otherwise. She said she told him in a phone conversation that she was “offended, outraged and hurt” by his comments to the Times.

She recalled the specific circumstances in which she recounted her story to Heilemann: in her office at the publication where they both worked, he standing by a window, she at her desk. “I told him in no uncertain terms,” she said.

In an interview, Heilemann said he doesn’t recall hearing the woman’s story. He declined to be quoted directly and offered no further comment.

Two other men — one a former political operative, the other a journalist — said they weren’t sure what to do when they heard her story more than a decade ago. Both men, who spoke at length about the episode on the condition of anonymity, expressed remorse about their indecision and inaction.

“Should I have gone and punched him in the face?” said the former political operative, who said the woman told him around 2003 or 2004. “Should I have called the head of ABC News? I don’t even know how that worked.”

The journalist said he learned of the incident about a year or so after it allegedly occurred. “I was stunned by the whole story,” he said. “It drove me crazy that a bad guy had done this and gotten away with it for so long.”

He said he felt guilty about remaining silent. But he reasoned that taking the allegation public at the time might have backfired.

"It would have been horrible," he said. "No one would have believed her, and no one at ABC News would have taken it seriously at the time. It would have hurt her, not Mark." He added that "the world is different today than it was even three months ago. It's different now" because allegations against Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Weinstein have created a more receptive climate for people to come forward.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center advises those told of assault or harassment to let the accuser guide the response. "You want to help validate the person's experience. You want to listen and offer help, but you don't want to take over," said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the organization. "You never want to tell a person things they're not ready to do."

The woman who accused Halperin said she’s gained some measure of satisfaction from seeing his misconduct exposed. “I’m euphoric that all of this has finally come out about Mark,” she said. “I do feel validated by it.”

One painful aspect of her experience over the two decades that followed their restaurant meeting, she said, was that she moved in some of the same professional and social circles as him and they would occasionally end up in the same room.

“We would nod hello,” she said, but they kept a distance from each other.

To this day, she said, Halperin has never said to her the two words she wanted to hear: I’m sorry.