BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Civil rights attorney Alphonso David became the first Black president of the Human Rights Campaign but lost the job almost as quickly as he got it after an investigation into wrongdoing related to his former role advising Andrew Cuomo on sexual harassment allegations while he was governor of New York.
In a race discrimination complaint filed Thursday, David attributes his termination to discrimination running rampant through the storied organization that advocates for gay rights.
“Despite its equality-focused mission, the organization had a deserved reputation for unequal treatment of its non-white employees,” the 16-page complaint states. “HRC’s own employees described it as a ‘White Men’s Club,’ where non-white staffers were marginalized, tokenized, and denied advancement to high-level positions.
David left New York state government where he serves as counsel to Governor Cuomo in 2019 to become president of the organization. David says the campaign's board first stood by him when a report came out accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment. It claimed to have “full confidence” in David’s “extraordinary leadership during extremely challenging times.”
Then, at David’s suggestions, the board investigated him to see if he had personally done anything improper. After David was interviewed by outside investigators for 10 hours, he was told to resign the next morning or be terminated. Despite promising to make the investigation results public, according to the complaint, the board kept them secret.
Charging retaliation and discrimination in Brooklyn federal court, David said he was treated differently and paid less than white men who held the job before him.
He notes one occasion where, after giving a speech focused on race, a white board member criticized him for discussing his experience, saying something to the effect of, “We all know you’re Black, why do you keep telling us that?”
The complaint points to a 2015 survey of Human Rights Campaign staff leaked to the press, which found numerous employees were concerned with “an organizational culture rooted in a white, masculine orientation which is judgmental of all those who don’t fit that mold,” and called it a “white man’s club” that tokenized nonwhite male staffers.
Pointing to a particularly offensive example, David said the former president of the group's educational arm had to resign after he "repeatedly used the word 'nigger' in front of colleagues in the workplace."
In September of 2021, after Governor Cuomo resigned, David sat for the interview that preceded his termination, purportedly “for cause,” a requirement of his employment agreement, the complaint says. He did not receive severance pay.
The Human Rights Campaign said it renewed David’s contract before it learned about his involvement in the Cuomo controversy.
“Mr. David’s complaint is riddled with untruths. 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,” Joni Madison, the campaign's interim president, said in a statement.
Madison notes that David's involvement helping Cuomo respond to sexual harassment allegations brought by former aide Lindsey Boylan violated the organization’s conflict of interest policy and mission.
“Mr. David’s actions as detailed in the NY State Attorney General’s report were a painful revelation, particularly because so many members of the LGBTQ+ community are survivors of assault and harassment themselves,” the statement continues, adding that the organization “will not be distracted” and will continue fighting for LGBTQ+ people, “especially for the most marginalized people in our community.”
David’s attorney did not return a request for comment on Thursday.
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