The world knows about multiple sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo because his accusers were free to speak out against him — and with that freedom, they ultimately forced Cuomo to resign as governor.
Empowerment of the victims led to the downfall of a powerful man. Which is why Gretchen Carlson, the former TV anchor who helped propel the nationwide #MeToo movement when she filed a sexual harassment suit against another powerful man, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, is lending her voice to the ongoing effort to help stop the silencing of sexual harassment victims in Massachusetts. Carlson plans to testify at a virtual legislative hearing on Tuesday in favor of a bill filed by state Senator Diana DiZoglio of Methuen which would ban the use of taxpayer money to prohibit sexual harassment victims from speaking out about their experience. Carlson will be joined by Julie Roginsky, a former Fox contributor who also filed suit against Fox and Ailes, who died in 2017.
“Every incremental step is important,” said Carlson in a telephone interview that included Roginsky. “At a bare minimum, taxpayers should know what their taxpayer dollars are spent on. People are using NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] to cover up workplace toxicity with taxpayer dollars. It is unconscionable.”
Carlson and Roginsky both signed NDAs as part of their settlements with Fox. Through their organization Lift Our Voices, they now lobby at the state and federal levels to strengthen laws against sexual harassment. They cite a 2019 law in New Jersey as a model for the rest of the country. Of course, we also know from Cuomo that laws alone don’t stop sexual harassers from harassing. As governor, Cuomo signed legislation that made New York’s sexual harassment laws among the strongest in the country. But laws do send a message about what’s acceptable.
“The women who were harassed by Andrew Cuomo were able to come forward publicly because they were not bound by NDAs,” said Roginsky. Added Carlson: “We wish Massachusetts would do” what other states have done. But so far, it hasn’t.
The Senate passed a previous bill filed by DiZoglio, but the House did not follow up. DiZoglio, who recently announced a run for state auditor, said she’s making one last attempt to change that outcome. Once again, she brings her personal story to the fight.
Before she was elected to the House and then the Senate, DiZoglio was working as a House aide when discredited rumors about inappropriate behavior made her the target of gossip and sexual harassment. She was fired, and a lawyer helped her negotiate a severance agreement with the speaker’s office that included a requirement that she not talk about what happened. She violated it in a March 2018 speech on the floor of the House and did not lose the severance — roughly six weeks of a $30,000 salary. But other victims shouldn’t have to worry about that, she said.
“It is completely unacceptable that taxpayer dollars go to protecting perpetrators of harassment and abuse. It’s beyond past time to be put to a stop,” said DiZoglio in a phone interview. The Senate has changed its rules to ban NDAs. The House allows such agreements to continue if requested by the employee. But as a practical matter, that leaves the power in the hands of employers, she said.
Senate Bill 2047 would prohibit any governmental entity, including the executive branch, Legislature, and judiciary, from including a nondisclosure, non-disparagement agreement as a condition of employment or in a settlement agreement. At the request of an employee or student, a settlement agreement could prevent the governmental entity from disclosing the individual’s identity, which is different from tying it to a settlement.
Carlson, Roginsky, and DiZoglio all insist that no one is taking away the right to confidentiality. If a woman doesn’t want to speak about what happens to her, she doesn’t have to. Instead, said Carlson, “It’s an awakening for women and others that they don’t have to sign on the dotted line. We’re going to own our own truths and punish those who did the wrongdoing.”
That puts the power where it belongs — with the victims of sexual harassment, not with the perpetrators.