Partisans, wielding money, begin seeking to exploit harassment claims

Published January 1 2018
Updated January 1 2018

WASHINGTON — As the #MeToo movement to expose sexual harassment roils the nation’s capital, political partisans are exploiting the moment, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support accusers who come forward with charges against President Donald Trump and members of Congress, even amid questions about their motivation.

As accusations take on a partisan tint, activists and lawyers fear that such an evolution could damage a movement that has shaken Hollywood, Silicon Valley, media suites in New York and the hallways of Congress — and has taken down both a Democratic fundraiser, Harvey Weinstein, and a conservative stalwart, Bill O’Reilly.

"There is a danger in this environment that unsophisticated individuals who have been abused by powerful people could be exploited by groups seeking partisan advantage, or by lawyers seeking a moment in the limelight," said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who has brought sexual harassment cases against politicians from both parties.

The lawyers and operatives behind the most politically charged cases brush off those concerns.

"I approach this with a pure heart," said Jack Burkman, a flamboyant Republican lawyer known for right-wing conspiracy theories who is seeking to represent sexual harassment victims. "I don’t want to see it politicized, even though, in a democracy, you see the political weaponization of everything."

Gloria Allred, a high-profile women’s rights lawyer and Democratic donor, is raising money to fund a lawsuit against Trump by a woman who says he sexually assaulted her. The woman, Summer Zervos, has filed a defamation suit against the president that could force Trump to respond to sexual misconduct accusations made in the closing weeks of the campaign by a raft of women.

In November, the Trump-backing social media agitator Mike Cernovich offered to pay $10,000 for details of any congressional sexual harassment settlements, and said on Twitter that he would cover the expenses of "any VICTIM of a congressman who wants to come forward to tell her story." Shortly before posting that offer, a source provided Cernovich with a copy of a sexual harassment settlement that led in December to the resignation of Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the longest-serving member of the House.

And Burkman, who has suggested that Russian hit men killed a young Democratic National Committee aide during the 2016 election, emerged in October to offer his services to women accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct. He had never handled a sexual harassment matter before.

The partisan efforts have already sparked some backlash. Cernovich and the far-right activist Charles C. Johnson had to back away from claims that they possessed a sexual harassment settlement that would bring down a leading Democratic senator when it became apparent that the document — which targeted the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York — was a forgery, lifting passages verbatim from the Conyers complaint unearthed by Cernovich. Schumer referred the matter to the Capitol Hill police for a criminal investigation.

Cernovich is an unlikely champion for sexual harassment victims, given his previous career as an antifeminist blogger who cast doubt on date-rape allegations and wrote posts with headlines like "Misogyny Gets You Laid."

Money’s role

It is difficult to determine how much money has been raised to fund claims related to sexual harassment because there are no public disclosure requirements for most such donations. But the solicitations seem likely to fuel skepticism.

Supporters of Republican politicians who have been accused of sexual misconduct — including Trump and the failed Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama — have fought back by suggesting, mostly without evidence, that their accusers are being paid by Democratic partisans.

Some Democrats have ascribed political motivation to sexual harassment claims against their politicians, as well, including those that led to the resignation of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. His defenders point out that Franken’s initial accuser, Leeann Tweeden, had appeared as a semiregular guest on the Fox News Channel show hosted by Sean Hannity, a close confidant of Trump.

Allred said she was not concerned about the motivations of partisans who might fund Zervos’ case against Trump.

"I have neither the time nor the interest to interview each donor and ask them why they would want to support our client," she said, "so I have no way to know whether they have a political agenda, or they just think truth matters."

During the presidential campaign, Zervos said Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007, after she appeared as a contestant on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. He dismissed her accusations and those of other accusers as "made-up nonsense" and suggested they were motivated by fame, or were being put up to it by Clinton’s campaign — comments that formed the basis for the defamation suit Zervos filed after the election. A judge is deciding whether to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

Allred’s daughter, lawyer Lisa Bloom, seized on the political potency of sexual harassment charges against Trump not long after he clinched the Republican presidential nomination. She said she reached out to a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC — though she declined to identify which one — for money to help her vet a sexual misconduct claim against Trump.

That case collapsed one week before Election Day, but as a result of the attention it generated, several donors reached out to Bloom "asking how they could help," she said. She told them that she was working with "a few other women" who might "find the courage to speak out" against Trump if the donors would provide funds for security, relocation and possibly a "safe house."

Bloom would not identify the donors. But two Democrats familiar with the arrangements said a nonprofit group founded by Democratic activist David Brock, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, gave $200,000, while fashion entrepreneur Susie Tompkins Buell, a major donor to Brock’s suite of groups, gave $500,000 to Bloom’s firm for the last-ditch effort.

It was not productive. One woman requested $2 million, Bloom said, then decided not to come forward. Nor did any other women.