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Time’s Up group to ‘completely rebuild’ after criticism for its role in Andrew M. Cuomo sexual harassment accusations

Then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) speaks at Rochdale Village Community Center in Queens on April 5, 2021. He resigned in August after being accused of sexual harassment.
Then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) speaks at Rochdale Village Community Center in Queens on April 5, 2021. He resigned in August after being accused of sexual harassment. (Brendan Mcdermid/AFP/Getty Images)

The anti-workplace harassment advocacy group Time’s Up will lay off nearly all of its 25 remaining employees and restructure, after an internal report prompted by the group’s involvement with then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo identified significant internal failures.

“We are going down to the studs to completely rebuild,” said Ashley Judd, an actor and author who serves as one of the group’s four remaining board members. “We can overcome our organizational lapses to serve the needs of women of all kinds. This organization is bigger than any one person. The movement is bigger than any one person.”

The decision to effectively restart from scratch a group founded by Hollywood and political leaders in 2018 follows revelations this summer that senior leaders consulted with Cuomo advisers after the Democratic governor had been accused of sexual harassment by a former aide. At one point, then-CEO Tina Tchen, who previously worked in the White House during the Obama presidency, told her colleagues to “stand down” from a plan to release a statement supporting his accuser after two people connected with the group spoke with the governor’s aides.

Those revelations led to the resignations in August of Tchen and board chairwoman Roberta Kaplan, who had been the point person in discussions with Cuomo’s staff. A majority of the group’s board resigned in the weeks that followed, and the group hired an independent consultant to conduct a fact-finding mission about the state of the organization.

That report, based on interviews with 85 current and former staff and other stakeholders, catalogues a broad range of internal complaints about the organization’s leadership and direction, from a lack of clear strategy to poor internal communication and internal conflicts of interest.

The organization was riven by disputes, sometimes between different groups of staff, over what the organization should be, with one participant saying in a listening session for the report, “I don’t know what we do, and I really should.” Some of Time’s Up’s employees and many of its stakeholders viewed the organization as “distracted or unfocused,” the report found.

“Employees shared that TIME’S UP’s status as a ‘well-connected’ organization was a weakness and that the world needed an organization that is not ‘engaged in or beholden to politics,’ ” wrote Leilani M. Brown, the consultant hired to oversee the listening sessions and compile the responses.

The remaining board members — Judd, financial executive Gabrielle Sulzberger, advertising executive Colleen DeCourcy and human rights activist Raffi Freedman-Gurspan — decided after receiving the report that a clean break was needed. Interim CEO Monifa Bandele, who previously served as the organization’s chief operating officer, also will depart, leaving a skeleton staff of three people to run the organization during the transition.

Staff members were told Friday that their jobs would end this year but that they would continue to be paid severance through March 1, according to a spokesperson for the group. The board has not announced a timeline or process for deciding on the organization’s next strategic mission and leadership.

“All believe that there is an important role for Time’s Up going forward,” said Sulzberger, who added that donors were still invested in the group’s future. “We are also committed to really, truly learn in a fundamental way.”

The group emerged from outrage and activism that followed public allegations of sexual assault and harassment by former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. After a farmworker activist organization wrote a public letter of solidarity for the struggles of women in Hollywood, a group of 300 women from film, television and theater took out newspaper ads on Jan. 1, 2018, to declare a new effort to hold workplaces accountable for sexual misconduct.

“Now, unlike ever before, our access to the media and to important decision makers has the potential of leading to real accountability and consequences,” the women wrote. “We want survivors of sexual harassment, everywhere, to be heard, to be believed and to know that accountability is possible.” Days later, Hollywood stars wore pins that declared “Time’s Up” on the red carpet of the 75th Golden Globe Awards.

Cuomo resigned from office Aug. 10 after an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James found that he had sexually harassed 11 women and oversaw an unlawful effort to exact retribution against one of his accusers. Cuomo denies improperly touching women and said other accusations were a misinterpretation of his affectionate leadership style.

The interview process that produced the Time’s Up report was sometimes contentious, owing to months of rising frustration inside the organization’s broader community over its direction and its handling of high-profile allies like Cuomo, who was viewed as a supporter before the scandal, and television mogul Oprah Winfrey, a donor who attracted criticism from some sexual abuse survivor activists after she pulled out of a documentary about alleged sexual misconduct by music producer Russell Simmons.

In at least one instance, according to people involved, a listening session was cut short after participants objected to the broad nature of the questioning. Some of the tensions arose from demands by people in the broader Time’s Up community for a more specific reckoning of the organization’s actions in recent years.

A group of survivors, including former Time’s Up staff members, had previously demanded that the organization undertake an internal investigation focused on its role in advising Cuomo’s team.

The board committed to “investigative work” and “an independent review of our past actions” on Aug. 25, after The Washington Post asked the organization about text messages showing Tchen told staff not to release a prepared statement supporting a Cuomo accuser.

But Brown wrote in her report that her work “should not be considered the result of an investigation.” She did not focus on any specific controversy in the organization’s past and instead sought input about the concerns and visions for the group.

Staff and stakeholders raised a range of concerns, including about the organization’s structure, its short-term focus and its perceived partisan affiliation, given that the group worked closely with Democratic politicians. Some also raised concerns about a now-shuttered consulting firm, called Habit Advisors, that Tchen and Kaplan ran while also leading Time’s Up. Habit was hired by Time’s Up to do training at the organization, the report found.

Time’s Up, which focused on empowering women in workplace settings, has had a number of high-profile successes since its founding, including helping to create the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a separate program that continues at the National Women’s Law Center and provides assistance to survivors of workplace harassment. The Legal Defense Fund recently announced that it would end its contract with SKDK, a politically connected public affairs firm that also worked closely with Time’s Up.

Time’s Up also has worked with the U.S. women’s soccer team on an effort to improve pay equity, led efforts to change work practices in Hollywood, and helped pass laws in New York and California that lengthened statutes of limitations on rape, strengthened protections for people who are sexually harassed at work and restricted the use of forced arbitration agreements.

Bandele, the interim CEO, said she hopes that the future leaders of the organization can learn from the experience of the group’s first few years.

“We definitely need to improve on transparency, communications and process. We have to get that right,” Bandele said. “Thanks to this review process, whoever steps in for this next phase knows that. Not improving on those would be a third rail. Those are the pitfalls we need to avoid in the future.”