By Lisa Myers and Jim Popkin, NBC News
Sen. Hillary Clinton has declined to return $170,000 in campaign contributions from individuals at a company accused of widespread sexual harassment, and whose CEO is a disbarred lawyer with a criminal record, federal campaign records show.
The federal government has accused the Illinois management consulting firm, International Profit Associates, or IPA, of a brazen pattern of sexual harassment including “sexual assaults,” “degrading anti-female language” and “obscene suggestions.”
In a 2001 lawsuit full of lurid details, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that 103 women employees at IPA were victimized for years. The civil case is ongoing, and IPA vigorously denies the allegations.
“This is by far, hands down, the worst case I’ve ever experienced,” said Diane Smason, one of the EEOC lawyers handling the lawsuit. “Every woman there experienced sex harassment, they were part of a hostile work environment of sex harassment. And this occurred from the top down.”
Sen. Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, told NBC News in a statement that the senator decided to keep the funds because the lawsuit is “ongoing” and because none of the sexual harassment allegations has been proven in court. “With regard to the pending harassment suit, as a general matter, the campaign assesses findings of fact in deciding whether to return contributions,” Wolfson said.
Adrienne Slick, who worked at IPA for seven months in 2000 and 2001 as a business coordinator and is now part of the EEOC suit, told NBC News in an interview that the sexual harassment was oppressive. “I had multiple managers come at me, press themselves up against me … ask me to go home with them, and to a hotel room so they could fulfill their fantasies,” she said.
The EEOC lawyers say the man at the top of the firm – IPA founder and Managing Director John R. Burgess – was among the worst offenders. The EEOC lawsuit claims, “The harassment emanated from the top: the owner and Managing Director, John Burgess, is accused of sexual harassment by at least 10 different women.”
Burgess has a criminal record, too. The former lawyer pleaded guilty to attempted grand larceny in 1987 and was disbarred in New York, court documents show. Burgess also pleaded guilty to “patronizing a prostitute” in 1984, according to Erie County, N.Y., court records.
Still, none of that has stopped powerful politicians in both parties from being courted by Burgess and IPA. Since 2000, IPA officials and their family members have given Sen. Clinton at least $170,000 for her Senate and presidential campaigns, federal campaign records show. Senator Clinton also spoke at a company event and rode on an IPA jet in 2004.
In May 2006, the New York Times brought Burgess’s criminal history, and the allegations against IPA, to Sen. Clinton’s attention. The May 7, 2006, article was titled “Rubbing Shoulders with Trouble, and Presidents.” In the article, a spokeswoman for Sen. Clinton was quoted as saying the Senator was not aware of Burgess’s criminal past and “will be reviewing” the contributions.
Almost two years later, federal records indicate that Sen. Clinton still has not returned the IPA money. Howard Wolfson, her communications director, did not dispute the $170,000 figure in an email to NBC News. He said Senator Clinton was not aware of Burgess’s past legal problems when she first accepted the donations. “In 2000 and 2003 when Sen. Clinton’s campaign accepted money from Burgess, it was not aware of his legal problems from the 1980s,” he said.
However, there were public reports of allegations against Burgess as early as 2000. That’s the year that Inc. Magazine first reported that Burgess had patronized a prostitute and had pleaded guilty to attempted grand larceny. And Senator Clinton’s campaign has accepted other contributions from other senior IPA officials as recently as last year, the campaign records show.
Many other politicians have been quick to distance themselves from IPA, and have returned donations. In 2002 in New York, Andrew Cuomo, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate at the time, returned $20,000 from Burgess. Cuomo’s office said the donations were returned after a New York newspaper reported on Burgess’s past legal problems and on the EEOC sexual-harassment allegations.
Other prominent Democrats also have returned IPA’s donations including Sen. Ted Kennedy and then-Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. On the same day in 2006, Sen. Barack Obama received $4,000 in campaign donations from a senior IPA official and his wife. Obama quickly returned $2,000 from the senior IPA official, campaign records show. But the campaign has held onto the matching $2,000 donation from the IPA official’s wife, the Obama campaign confirms.
Some political analysts say it is surprising that the first viable female candidate for president would not be more sensitive to allegations of sexual harassment.
“The fact that Hillary Clinton at this point is holding onto money from a contributor who has been charged with sexual harassment can only be perceived as insensitive to women’s issues and women,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Senior Scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. “I don’t think that fits the definition of feminism, at least the last time I looked.”
Adrienne Slick, the former IPA employee, says she’s disappointed in any politician who would take or keep money from IPA. “This is not something that should be taken lightly, and to accept those funds makes a statement,” she told NBC.
The EEOC lawyers would not comment on any aspect of the political donations, and confined their remarks solely to the lawsuit.
Clinton Campaign Response:
Wolfson dismissed the notion that keeping IPA money reflected a lack of concern about sexual harassment. “Sen. Clinton is proud of her long record of championing women’s causes,” he said. “When the EEOC rules on the allegations involving Burgess, we will consider that outcome in assessing if there is any reason to return his contribution.” Of the $170,000 total in donations from all IPA officials and employees, Burgess and his family members personally contributed $16,000 to Sen. Clinton, campaign records show.
For its part, IPA vigorously denies any wrongdoing and said it has been fighting the EEOC lawsuit for more than six years. “Since a lawsuit was filed in June 2001, IPA has continually and consistently denied the allegations,” IPA spokeswoman Jennifer Cumbee wrote in an email to NBC News. “At IPA, we have zero tolerance approach when it comes to sexual harassment.”
Cumbee added: “This involves primarily claims by persons who worked a short time in the mid- to late 90s (although there are some persons who worked after that). Immediately after the lawsuit was filed and by early 2001, IPA in an abundance of caution had its sexual harassment policy completely revised by competent outside professionals.”
She says, “IPA has had no unresolved claim of harassment for several years now and any one of its 2,000 employees who violate the policy, after investigation, is dealt with swiftly.” She would not comment directly on Slick’s claims, citing employee confidentiality. She said that the EEOC already has dropped some claimants from the suit. “All employee claims have been contested as many have no witnesses or records or current complaints,” Cumbee said.
The IPA spokeswoman did not dispute that Burgess had a criminal record from his days in New York. “All that you have asked, in regards to John Burgess, is a matter of public record,” she wrote. “Mr. Burgess is not a felon and was never convicted or pled to a felony.” She said that it would be unfair to judge Burgess on two-decade-old crimes, and pointed out that Burgess and IPA are solid employers who donate generously to charities.
Claude Says: So I ask you, if she is rich beyond all possibility, and this is actually “bad” money, imagine what she will do for our wondrous country if she becomes president. I am starting to lean… Celery, Celery what a vegetable you have for a brain…