The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaders of the Time’s Up anti-harassment group worked closely with Cuomo aide after first accusation against him surfaced

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2020.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2020. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The leaders of Time’s Up, the advocacy group founded by political insiders in Washington and Hollywood to fight workplace sexual misconduct, decided against issuing a statement in support of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first harassment accuser in December after consulting with the governor’s top aide, according to people familiar with the matter and text messages obtained by The Washington Post.

The text messages show that Time’s Up chief executive Tina Tchen told her colleagues to “stand down” from a plan to release a public statement supporting Cuomo’s first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, after two people connected to the group spoke with Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s longtime adviser.

A day earlier, DeRosa had briefed Roberta Kaplan, then the chairwoman of Time’s Up, about Cuomo’s plans for an initial response to Boylan, and Kaplan shared the statement with Tchen, according to people familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose them.

UPDATE:Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen resigns

A separate effort by Tchen to pressure DeRosa to oversee an internal investigation into the “workplace culture” in the governor’s office was also abandoned after DeRosa and Kaplan argued that such an effort would lack credibility given that DeRosa was a loyal aide to Cuomo, according to text messages and people familiar with the events.

Time’s Up’s board of directors released a statement Wednesday night, after a meeting that followed inquiries from The Post, saying the directors are committed “to an independent review of our past actions, our current work as well as developing the processes and improvements necessary for furthering our mission.” They promised to make the results of that review public.

The Dec. 15 text message discussion between five senior Time’s Up advisers revealed a far more extensive behind-the-scenes effort to work with Cuomo’s office amid the sexual harassment charges than the group has previously acknowledged. An investigation earlier this month by New York Attorney General Letitia James found that Kaplan had spoken with DeRosa about a separate draft letter responding to Boylan’s allegations, which investigators described as part of an “unlawful retaliation” effort against Boylan. Kaplan had read the letter to Tchen at the time, the investigation found.

Kaplan resigned from the Time’s Up board on Aug. 9, after James’s report was released, amid an outcry from sexual abuse survivor advocates. Tchen has since apologized to survivors and said she does not recall the details of her conversation with Kaplan.

Tchen reiterated her apology Wednesday in a statement to The Post.

“On the events from December 2020, we have a policy of not commenting on self-reported statements. We did discuss deviating from that policy, given a request for comment from Fox News,” said Tchen, who served as chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama. “We also suggested that the Governor’s office respond by doing a review of their workplace culture. Ultimately, we decided not to comment given our policy, but in so doing did not intend to silence Ms. Boylan or any survivor. I deeply regret that survivors, who have already endured a great deal, feel let down and betrayed. That was not my intention.”

Kaplan has previously said she cannot comment publicly on her dealings with DeRosa because her law firm now represents DeRosa as a client. She declined requests for comment through a spokesperson.

Boylan, a former Cuomo aide, issued a series of tweets on Dec. 13 that accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. He had gained national attention during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and was moving toward running for a fourth term.

“Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years. Many saw it, and watched,” Boylan wrote. “To be clear: I have no interest in talking to journalists. I am about validating the experience of countless women and making sure abuse stops.”

The next day, Cuomo publicly denied the charge with a carefully worded statement.

“Look, I fought for and I believe, a woman has the right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has. But it’s just not true,” he said of Boylan’s claims. The attorney general found that Boylan’s claims, which included an invitation by Cuomo to play strip poker, an unwelcome kiss from him and other harassment, were credible and supported by the rest of the evidence in the investigation.

Other women later came forward with similar accusations. James’s probe found that Cuomo harassed 11 women, including a state trooper whom the governor arranged to be put on his detail. The reaction prompted Cuomo’s resignation, effective this week.

People involved in the Time’s Up response to Cuomo’s first accuser describe significant disagreement inside the group, which had worked closely with Cuomo in 2019 on legislation to change how rape and sexual harassment were adjudicated in New York. In the days after Boylan’s tweets, the group launched multiple, and at times conflicting, private efforts to reach out to DeRosa to discuss responses.

Some staff thought the group should issue a standard statement supporting Boylan’s right to be heard, while others, including Tchen, initially resisted that call. The issue surfaced on Dec. 15, when the group received an inquiry from a Fox News reporter who was working on a story about the response by feminist groups to the allegations against Cuomo.

In the text message exchanges, Tchen argued against releasing a statement in response, joining board member Hilary Rosen, a vice chair of the communications firm SKDK, who wrote that she was concerned about the negative impact of giving Fox “a headline to run all day.”

“As a survivor I have always thought that serious allegations of sexual harassment should not be politicized and Fox News had a reputation for doing just that,” Rosen said in a statement, explaining her objections at the time. “So part of this text chain is only responsive to the question about Fox. Context matters.”

Three other senior advisers to the group — Jennifer Klein, the former chief policy officer who now works at the White House; Rebecca Goldman, the former chief operating officer; and Amanda Harrington, the former vice president of communications — all weighed in by text message to support issuing a statement that Harrington had drafted.

Klein, Goldman and Harrington all declined requests for comment.

Tchen initially told the group that she did not think a Time’s Up statement about Boylan’s claims was appropriate.

“I agree wit [sic] hilary. The story is all over the place with this survivor,” she wrote to the group.

Tchen said in a statement Wednesday that by saying that “I was referring to the fact that Lindsey’s story was all over the news. I was not saying I disbelieved Lindsey.”

In the text thread, Tchen also objected to the substance of the statement that Harrington had circulated.

“Just looked at statement and not sure I even like that on [sic] she deserves to be heard,” Tchen continued. “She has been in the context she wants to be heard so no one is saying she shouldn’t but the way she is speaking in not wanting to talk further doesn’t mean she wants to be heard more. So I would say nothing right now.”

Goldman, who had officially left the organization’s staff weeks earlier, responded in the text chain by disagreeing with Tchen.

“I do think our silence looks bad and the first more generic statement Amanda wrote is what we should always say, every time, and compliments [sic] what he said himself,” Goldman wrote, referring to Cuomo. “It is not good to have a headline that says TU is silent vs TU supports survivors. In my opinion. Everyone deserves to be heard.”

After Goldman made her case for a statement on Dec. 15, Tchen agreed to meet midday by Zoom to discuss the matter. After the meeting, Tchen rejoined the text chain and asked the others to “hold for an hour before deploying statement to give Robbie [Roberta Kaplan] a chance to look at text.”

Kaplan had communicated the previous day with Cuomo aide DeRosa about what the governor planned to say in response to Boylan’s allegations, and had then shared the planned statement with Tchen, according to people familiar with the conversations.

As Time’s Up’s leadership debated their statement, Tchen asked Rosen to open a separate line of communication with Cuomo’s office to see if the governor would “task Melissa with looking at their workplace culture.”

Rosen asked her former SKDK colleague Jennifer Cunningham, a longtime informal Cuomo adviser, to reach out to Cuomo’s office to raise concerns about the response so far, according to the people familiar with the conversations.

“I never talked to the Govs office directly,” Rosen said in a statement about her efforts. “I did try to encourage them, through a friend, to fully address this allegation and to take any problems in his office seriously, but I was shut down.” Rosen added that she was “glad that Lindsey Boylan got her justice.”

DeRosa told Cunningham that she had already run the governor’s initial response to the Boylan accusation past Kaplan a day earlier, which took Cunningham by surprise, according to people familiar with the conversations. Another person briefed on the conversation contested whether the Kaplan ever approved the document in discussions with DeRosa.

DeRosa argued that the Boylan allegations were vague, that Boylan had credibility issues and that Time’s Up did not need to respond just because Fox News was demanding a response, two people familiar with the matter said. DeRosa also said she believed that the idea that she would lead an investigation into workplace culture was preposterous.

DeRosa then contacted Kaplan to relay the same objections.

“Sure they contacted Melissa when this all happened but they are all smart, tough and accomplished women and neither she nor the governor’s office had any agency over what they did or didn’t do,” said a person close to Cuomo’s office, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Cunningham reported back to Rosen, who then informed the Time’s Up leadership, via text message. Rosen wrote to the group that DeRosa was protesting a new demand by Time’s Up for a review of office culture, since DeRosa had previously reviewed Cuomo’s response with Kaplan, who had shared that information with Tchen. Rosen later wrote in the text messages that she had not known Kaplan and DeRosa had held separate earlier discussions.

Rosen also told the group that DeRosa and Kaplan had recently talked and that Kaplan was against doing anything in response. People familiar with that conversation said Kaplan had objected to the idea of DeRosa leading a workplace culture review.

After receiving Rosen’s texts about DeRosa, Tchen told the others in the group that they would shift direction.

“Robbie is talking directly to Melissa now. Let’s stand down other efforts for now,” Tchen wrote.

The Fox News story ran later that day noting that Time’s Up had not responded to a request for comment.

Boylan, meanwhile, has been calling for Tchen to resign since shortly after the attorney general’s report was released.

“You’re Time’s Up, you know how prevalent retaliation is, why would they believe the governor? What is their investigation before believing him?” said Jill Basinger, Boylan’s attorney. “Hopefully these organizations will think harder, better and more deeply.”