The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Human Rights Campaign hit with racial bias suit by former president fired in Andrew M. Cuomo scandal

Alphonso David, then-president of the Human Rights Campaign, in Atlanta during a visit in support of Democratic U.S. Senate candidates on Dec. 9, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
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The nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group faced a new round of controversy Thursday, when its former president accused the organization in legal filings of having a “racist, biased culture” and firing him because he was Black.

Alphonso David, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, lost his job in September in the wake of revelations that he had advised aides to Andrew M. Cuomo, then governor of New York, on the response to a sexual harassment allegation. David claims in federal court in New York that he faced repeated racial bias while working at HRC.

“HRC underpaid David, and then terminated him, because he is Black,” David’s lawyers wrote in the complaint, which was filed in federal court in New York.

Joni Madison, the interim president of HRC who previously served as David’s chief of staff, responded with a statement rejecting the charge and reiterating the board’s belief that David’s work with Cuomo’s office had made his continued leadership of the organization untenable.

“Mr. David’s complaint is riddled with untruths,” Madison wrote. “We are confident through the legal process that it will be apparent that Mr. David’s termination was based on clear violations of his contract and HRC’s mission, and as president of HRC, he was treated fairly and equally.”

David claims that board members told him that he was initially paid less because he is Black. He says he was encouraged by a board member to stop mentioning his race in public comments after a speech about racial and ethnic differences in the LGBTQ movement. He also recounts being told by a senior HRC executive that his public support for racial justice risked alienating White donors and specifically “White gay men.”

The same senior executive, according to the complaint, criticized a Black staff member for meeting with a Black-owned consulting firm without a White person present because the firm’s employees might perform worse if they think they are working for people of their race.

The lawsuit is likely to add fuel to simmering frustrations at HRC and within the broader liberal activist community about accusations within their ranks of overt and implicit workplace discrimination and bias. The Washington-based organization, founded as a political action committee for gay rights in 1980, has faced criticism over the past decade for falling short on its commitment to racial diversity and transgender rights. David arrived in 2019, after working for Cuomo.

“I had to challenge a system and a pattern of bias that has not only affected me, but it has affected way too many Black and Brown people,” David said in an interview, explaining his decision to sue. “Discrimination and bias are rife within HRC. And I’m just the latest person to be affected.”

David was fired from HRC in September, weeks after New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) revealed that he had helped seek signatories for a letter that sought to undermine the accusations of Cuomo’s first sexual harassment accuser, Lindsey Boylan. That letter was part of an effort that amounted to “unlawful retaliation,” according to a report on Cuomo’s behavior by James’s office.

David also offered advice to Cuomo aides and shared with the governor’s office personnel records he had retained about Boylan after leaving his job in Albany. The revelations led to an uprising among some low-level HRC staff, who called for his resignation during internal meetings.

David has argued that his interactions with Cuomo’s office were proper and did not justify his dismissal. He said that he was obligated as an attorney to share the documents with his former client and that he told Cuomo aides at the time that he would not sign the letter, which described claims about the accuser he could not verify personally. He said he also suggested changes to make the unreleased document less objectionable.

After the revelations about his role in Cuomo’s response to the sexual harassment claims, the chairs of HRC’s two governing boards, Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson, initially issued a statement supporting David. As the public backlash grew, they announced an investigation into David’s interactions with Cuomo’s office. Weeks later, they asked him to resign, he said, and he refused.

He was fired days later, with Cox and Patterson writing that his actions amounted to a “violation of HRC’s Conflict of Interest policy and the mission of HRC” that had caused damage to the group’s “interests, reputation and prospects” and compromised David’s ability to lead the organization.

David was one of several professional casualties of the attorney general’s investigation, which led to the governor’s resignation after finding that he had harassed 11 women. The board chair of the feminist group Time’s Up, Roberta Kaplan, resigned after the report found she had spoken to a Cuomo adviser about how the governor should handle the accusations. The CEO of the same group, Tina Tchen, quit weeks later after text messages revealed she had called off a plan for a statement of support for Boylan after others at Time’s Up had conversations with Cuomo aides.

Former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, lost his job at the network after the investigation revealed he had been trying to help the governor fight the allegations. A CNN investigation of the younger Cuomo’s actions led to the resignation this week of CNN president Jeff Zucker, who admitted that he had not disclosed a consensual romantic relationship with a colleague as required by company policy.

David is seeking punitive and compensatory damages from the HRC for violations of New York state and federal law, as well as reinstatement to his position leading the organization, according to his complaint.

“I’m hoping that we peel back the onion and find some sunlight,” he said. “I’m hoping that we recognize that institutions that purported to represent all members of our community actually have to do just that.”

The lawsuit puts David in the odd position of attacking the culture of an organization that he ran for more than two years, a fact that was not lost on some current and former employees.

“I don’t think that Alphonso is wrong in saying that there is a culture of racism and white supremacy, as well as across the board pay inequities, at the Human Rights Campaign,” Michael Vazquez, an Afro-Latino activist who was HRC’s faith program director until August, said in a statement. “At the same time, we have to recognize that a lot of these issues were reported to Alphonso, to human resources and general counsel while Alphonso was in charge of the organization and nothing seemed to change.”

David was hired as the first Black head of the HRC at a time when the organization was dealing with multiple controversies about its handling of racial issues. A senior staff member at the organization resigned in 2018, a year before David joined, after an investigation found she had used “the n-word” to recount a personal story and to describe a situation she found upsetting, according to an email at the time from the group’s previous president, Chad Griffin.

That followed a 2015 internal review of the workplace culture at the HRC that found staff concerns about the organization’s commitment to diversity, a sense among staff that it was a “white gay man’s club” and complaints that non-White and transgender staff “feel tokenized” and undervalued for their skills.

Griffin and HRC leadership made public commitments after the controversies to address the concerns. But David now argues that the fact that Griffin, who is White, was not disciplined for the reputational damage to the organization under his tenure is evidence of a double standard.

“Nothing happens to the White predecessor. Nothing,” David said in an interview. “He wasn’t asked to resign. He wasn’t terminated. He wasn’t censured.”

Racial tensions remained inside the organization after David was hired. J. Maurice McCants-Pearsall, a Black activist who worked as the HRC’s director of HIV and health equity when David was fired, posted a public letter in September denouncing David’s dismissal.

In the letter, McCants-Pearsall described the moment when David’s hiring was announced to the staff. He said the facial expressions and body language of his White colleagues at the organization suggested disapproval when David entered the room.

“Yet, I wasn’t surprised,” he wrote. “[F]or decades and in recent years HRC has struggled with addressing internal racism among staff.”

Upon taking the job, David gave a speech at an HRC fundraising dinner calling for his predominantly White and male audience to see beyond themselves as they pursued their political activism.

“See yourself in the bisexual Black man living with HIV in the South with little to no access to health care. See yourself as the young Latinx lesbian immigrant who has been brutalized and persecuted in her own country,” he said in the speech. “See yourself in the person who looks nothing like you.”

In his court filing, David’s attorneys say he was approached after the speech by a White board member who pushed back on the message he had tried to deliver. The board member told David in front of other HRC staff that his audience knew he was Black so he did not need to tell them, the complaint states.

Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, said she remains concerned about the circumstances of David’s firing. She wrote an open letter to HRC last year asking for more information about the reason that he was fired. She said she has not received a response.

“I just believe it’s arrogance,” she said of the lack of a response.

Richard Brookshire, a Black communications specialist, quit his job at HRC in November after 90 days of employment, explaining in his resignation letter that he had not been given the mentorship or guidance he felt he needed to be effective.

In an interview this week, he said he was warned by other non-White staff when he arrived at the organization to not trust anyone.

“The reason I left was because there wasn’t a culture of belonging at HRC. I was a Black face in a high place,” Brookshire said. “A lot of racism in liberal organizations is in what is not said, what is not done … You can feel that. You can feel when you are being excluded.”