When Sekiko Sakai Garrison told her boss she was pregnant, she says in a lawsuit, he told her to “kill it.”
When she asked him to repeat himself, he said it again: “kill it.” Then, according to her suit, he mumbled, “Great! Number 16!” — a reference to the number of women at his company who were pregnant or on maternity leave.
The boss named in the lawsuit was Mike Bloomberg, and the allegations contained in the suit, filed in 1998, are just some of the claims that have captured Americans’ attention in recent days as the billionaire and presidential candidate has risen in the polls.
In addition to Garrison’s suit, a former employee named Mary Ann Olszewski sued Bloomberg LP, the company Mike Bloomberg owns, in 1996, as Michael Kranish reports at the Washington Post. She said that she was drugged and raped by a supervisor there, that employees from Bloomberg on down engaged in the “sexual degradation of women,” and that Bloomberg himself made comments about female employees like, “I’d like to do that piece of meat.”
The report in the Post, released this weekend, is just one of several in recent months to examine allegations that Bloomberg LP fostered a climate of endemic sexual harassment for decades, and that the CEO himself set the tone with belittling, sexist, and objectifying comments about female employees. Bloomberg has also been criticized for refusing to release former employees from nondisclosure agreements they signed as part of settlements in harassment lawsuits.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the former mayor to account on the issue at Wednesday’s debate. “What we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there,” she said. “He has gotten some number of women — dozens, who knows — to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.”
Bloomberg has denied the allegations made by Garrison and Olszewski, and his campaign is pushing back against claims that he presided over a sexist atmosphere at his company. “Virtually all of this has been reported over the past two decades,” a campaign spokesperson told Vox. “In any large organization, there are going to be complaints — but Mike simply does not tolerate any kind of discrimination or harassment, and he’s created cultures that are all about equality and inclusion.”
Still, the allegations against Bloomberg raise questions about his candidacy, especially since he’s running explicitly as an alternative to President Trump. The president has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women and faces defamation lawsuits from two of them, including author E. Jean Carroll, who says he sexually assaulted her at a Manhattan department store in the 1990s. Trump’s election, along with the Me Too movement and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, have made many Democratic and independent voters around the country think deeply about men’s power in government.
The allegations have also resurfaced at a time of increasing public awareness of gender discrimination and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. Both social science data and the voices of many who have come forward as part of the Me Too movement tell us that “there really are still deeply ingrained stereotypes about women at work, in particular about pregnant women and mothers at work,” Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told Vox. “Those stereotypes continue to shut down opportunities for women.”
If Bloomberg wants to position himself as the anti-Trump, he’ll have to convince voters that he’s not the man portrayed in lawsuits and other allegations — someone who personally perpetuated, at his company, the kind of discrimination that holds back many women in the workplace today.
Bloomberg has been accused of a litany of sexist comments
In 1981, decades before he would serve as mayor of New York City or run for president, Mike Bloomberg founded the company Bloomberg LP. As Vox’s Emily Stewart has written, the company makes most of its money on a financial software system called the Bloomberg Terminal, but it also includes several media brands, including Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek. Mike Bloomberg placed the company in a blind trust between 2002 and 2013, when he was mayor of New York, and returned as CEO in 2014 before taking leave again last year to run for president, according to the Post.
Over the years, the company has faced a variety of employment lawsuits — nearly 40 cases involving 65 plaintiffs between 1996 and 2016, Becky Peterson, Nicole Einbinder, and J.K. Trotter reported at Business Insider in November. The majority of those cases concerned discrimination — on the basis of gender, race, disability status, or pregnancy.
One of those suits was Garrison’s, which alleges that Bloomberg made a litany of sexist and racist comments over the years. At one point, Garrison says, the then-CEO asked her, “You still dating your boyfriend? You giving him good blow jobs?” When he found out that another female employee was having a hard time finding a nanny, he responded that “it’s a fucking baby” and that “all you need is some black who doesn’t even have to speak English to rescue it from a burning building,” according to the suit.
Then there were the “kill it” comments. In addition to the allegation put forth in the suit, the Post’s Kranish reported this weekend that David Zielenziger, a former Bloomberg employee, says he heard the comments.
“I remember she had been telling some of her girlfriends that she was pregnant,” he said. “And Mike came out and I remember he said, ‘Are you going to kill it?’ And that stopped everything. And I couldn’t believe it.”
“He talked kind of crudely about women all the time,” Zielenziger added to the Post.
In her suit, Garrison said she complained about Bloomberg’s comments and that he subsequently “directed” her firing. Bloomberg ultimately settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum and denied the allegations. In his testimony in the case, he said, “I never said those words and there would be no reason to do so, it’s ridiculous and an outrage.”
Former employees who have sued the company aren’t the only ones to ascribe sexist comments to Bloomberg. In 1990, Kranish reports, an employee gave Bloomberg a gift: a booklet titled “The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Mike Bloomberg.” The booklet included jokes attributed to Bloomberg like the comment that the company’s terminal “will do everything, including give you a blowjob. I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”
“Yes, these are all actual quotes,” the employee wrote in the introduction. “No, nothing has been embellished or exaggerated. And yes, some things were too outrageous to include.”
By contrast, a spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign told the Post, “Mike simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift, which has been circulating for 30 years and has been quoted in every previous election Mike has been in.”
There have also been sexual assault allegations under Bloomberg’s watch
In addition to the allegations of discrimination made by Garrison and others, two women say in their suits that they were sexually assaulted by superiors at the company. One of them, Olszewski, described the company as a “hostile environment of persistent sexual harassment.” She said that in 1993, when she was a recently hired sales representative at the company, a more senior employee, Bryan Lewis, insisted she come back to his hotel room. There, she said, he raped her.
Soon after, Lewis became Olszewski’s direct boss and harassed her repeatedly, she said, keeping important accounts away from her because she would not agree to his advances. In May 1995, she said, she reported the assault to Lewis’s boss. In August, she was fired.
Lewis denied the allegation, and the case was eventually dismissed when Olszewski’s lawyer failed to meet a filing deadline, according to Business Insider. However, court records reveal some of Bloomberg’s own comments about the case, as both Business Insider and the Post report.
In a deposition, he was asked what would constitute satisfactory proof that one of his employees had raped another. “I guess an unimpeachable third-party witness,” he answered. When pressed on how uncommon it is for a rape to be witnessed by a third party, he said, “There are times when three people are together.”
A spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign told the Post that Bloomberg made the comment about witnesses “during a contentious deposition and this does not reflect what he believes.”
While Garrison and Olszewski filed their suits decades ago, the allegations did not stop in the 1990s. One woman, identified in court documents as Margaret Doe, filed suit in 2016, according to Business Insider.
She said that after she was hired in 2012 at the age of 22, her supervisor, Nicholas Ferris, provided her with opiates, raped her twice while she was incapacitated, and “tormented” her over a period of months. She ultimately went on medical leave and was terminated after her medical leave benefits expired, a source told Business Insider.
Ferris did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the allegations, but a Bloomberg LP spokesperson said that he was terminated before any complaints were made: “We discovered inappropriate conduct through our own compliance tools, investigated it thoroughly, and acted appropriately.”
Doe named Bloomberg personally in her suit, accusing him of creating a toxic work environment at the company with his “sexist and sexually charged behavior.” A judge dismissed the claim against Bloomberg in October 2019, but Doe is appealing the case.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg continues to face criticism around his refusal to release women from nondisclosure agreements they signed as part of settlements in their lawsuits. The Me Too movement has helped bring to light the ways such agreements can be used to essentially buy women’s silence, and advocacy groups have pushed other companies to release former employees from NDAs. NBC, for example, has agreed to do so, but only if former employees contact the company first.
Bloomberg, however, has maintained that he will not release former employees from their NDAs. “We don’t have anything to hide,” he said on The View in January. “But we made legal agreements which both sides wanted to keep things from coming out. They have a right to do that.”
Bloomberg’s past could be an issue as he runs as an alternative to Trump
Bloomberg has said he regrets some of his past comments. “Did I ever tell a bawdy joke? Yeah, sure I did. Do I regret it? Yes, it’s embarrassing,” he said on The View. “But, you know, that’s the way I grew up.”
And his campaign says that contrary to the allegations in the lawsuits, he has always treated women and mothers fairly. “I’ve worked for Mike for 26 years, and he has always hired and promoted women into senior leadership roles,” his campaign chair, Patricia E. Harris, told Vox in a statement. “In industries long dominated by men, Mike believes that having women leaders is crucial to any organization’s success, and he has backed up that belief with his hiring and promotion practices, as well as his benefit policies.”
Last year, Bloomberg LP increased its parental leave benefit from 18 weeks of paid leave to 26 weeks for primary caregivers, a generous policy in a country where many parents get no paid time off at all (secondary caregivers, however, get just four weeks).
But even “bawdy jokes” can be serious, experts say. “When the leader of an organization has a pattern of making sexist remarks, whether they’re framed as jokes or whether they’re framed as putdowns, that not only impacts the immediate target of those remarks, it’s a message that goes to the organization as a whole,” the NWLC’s Martin told Vox.
And a sexist atmosphere, in turn, can foster sexual misconduct. “One of the patterns that we see is that workplaces that are hostile to the presence of women at work are workplaces where there tends to be sexual harassment,” Martin said.
Beyond his company, Bloomberg is facing increasing scrutiny of past racist and sexist comments. In a 2015 speech, Bloomberg defended New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, which he pursued as mayor, saying, “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods,” because “that’s where all the crime is. And the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them.” And a 2019 video shows Bloomberg describing trans people as “he, she, or it” and “some guy in a dress,” BuzzFeed News reported on Tuesday.
Bloomberg has apologized for stop and frisk and pledged to protect trans rights as president. But as Katelyn Burns writes at Vox, the trans community “has withstood attack after attack from the Trump administration,” and trans voters have understandable questions about whether Bloomberg will really represent them.
Overall, Bloomberg is running as the anti-Trump — as Vox’s Emily Stewart puts it, an actual self-made billionaire who offers “facts over fiction, data over politics, and realism over rhetoric.” In ads, he’s generally bypassed his Democratic opponents to go after Trump directly, in one spot calling him a bully and a liar and reminding voters that Trump once called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman.”
But for some Democratic voters, Bloomberg may be too much like Trump for comfort. Warren argued as much at Wednesday’s debate, saying, “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”
Unlike Trump, Bloomberg has not been personally accused of sexual assault — but he has been accused, multiple times, of fostering a culture that led employees to be sexually assaulted. And some of the comments attributed to him would not seem out of place coming from Trump.
In the past, polls have shown that voters want candidates with a record of fighting sexual harassment. In a 2018 poll conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, 52 percent of Americans said they would never vote for someone accused of harassment, and 51 percent said they would not vote for someone who did not make addressing the issue a priority.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s election, especially coming after he was heard on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” had a galvanizing effect on women around the country. At Women’s Marches and other protests, “pussy grabs back” became a rallying cry.
And though attendance at those marches has dwindled in recent years, they served as gathering places for many who continue to participate in activism and who ran for office — and won — in 2018.
It wasn’t just women. Research by the firm PerryUndem suggests that the election of Trump, the Me Too movement, and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh after allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct combined to make many Democrats and independents think about the outsize power white men have in American society and how they use it to control others.
For example, large percentages of Democratic and independent men, as well as women, in a 2019 poll said that one reason Kavanaugh was confirmed was that white men wanted to hold on to their power in government. Those attitudes could affect the way Americans vote in 2020, and how they examine candidates’ histories on issues like racial and gender discrimination.
Bloomberg’s polling numbers suggest that, for now, he’s been able to pull voters away from other candidates. But as Wednesday night’s debate showed, the allegations from his past aren’t going away. And with an electorate motivated to a significant degree by Trump’s own documented record of sexism, they could be a serious liability.