One of the most powerful public relations firms in progressive politics and Internet freedom causes abruptly shut down late Thursday amid several allegations of sexual assault and harassment against the company’s president.
Trevor FitzGibbon, whose public relations firm FitzGibbon Media has championed many causes since 2009, worked with a list of high-profile clients that included the American Civil Liberties Union, MoveOn.org, Rock the Vote, the Chelsea Manning Legal Defense Fund, and WikiLeaks, among others.
“We work on this issue [of] making sure that women have a voice. And it’s kind of gross that at a company that focused on this, this happened to us,” a former FitzGibbon Media employee, who asked we didn’t include her name, told the Daily Dot via phone late Thursday evening. The staffer, who worked in media relations for the past few years (she asked to keep the number vague to avoid identification) at FitzGibbon and we’ll call Beth (not her real name), said that “working with him [FitzGibbon] wasn’t the easiest”
“Now, when I think about it—it’s shocking [the allegations], obviously—but he was… different,” she says.
Two other female staffers, who also asked they not be named, said they’d known what FitzGibbon was capable of all along—because, they say, he sexually assaulted both of them.
“Everyone knew that he was pretty flirty, and he could make women uncomfortable with the things he said,” Tracey—not her real name—told the Daily Dot via phone on Friday morning. “But it was hard to figure out what that line was. They thought, ‘He’s just quirky, weird.’ People kind of gave him a long leash with that, especially because we knew he had a really big family life. He had small children, we knew his wife, Meredith. … It caused people to overlook the red flags that came up occasionally.”
At a certain point, however, Tracey personally learned exactly where the line was. She did not provide specific details about the nature of the alleged assault, but when asked, “Did Trevor FitzGibbon sexually assault you?” she replied, “Yes.”
The entire 30-person staff from New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, London, and Athens, Georgia, convened in Austin, Texas, for a retreat on the weekend of Dec. 4. The gathering was uneventful, according to former employees. As the team packed up to return to their respective offices, however, word began circulating among a small group of staffers that FitzGibbon had sexually harassed a prospective Austin-based female employee that he’d met with that weekend.
The prospective staffer, 26-year-old Sierra Pedraja, told the Huffington Post that FitzGibbon made suggestive statements when they first met. The next day, she said, he invited her to his hotel room.
“I was very eager to get a job, and he used that to his advantage,” Pedraja told HuffPo. “He tried to make me feel very uncomfortable. He made it seem like I owed him these things to get the job. … I was not entertaining it at all. I didn’t ask for it.”
As soon as everyone was back at work on Monday, the story began to take shape.
Three staffers who spoke to the Daily Dot said that two women (Pedraja and a FitzGibbon employee) came to the company’s human resources department on Monday, Dec. 7, alleging they’d been sexually harassed by FitzGibbon during the Austin retreat.
Once the staff heard “rumblings” of the alleged harassment, according to former staffers, approximately five more women filed reports with HR, saying they’d also been sexually harassed. Of those women, two said they’d been sexually assaulted.
By week’s end, FitzGibbon was confronted (by, the former staffers believe, HR and the company principals) about the allegations. This past Sunday night, he sent an email to all staff announcing he’d be taking a leave of absence. The email in its entirety was provided by one of the former staffers.
I wanted to let you know that starting now I’m going to be on leave for at least six weeks so that I can get grounded with Meredith and my family in Richmond and address some specific things that I need some outside consultation to address. Its been brought to my attention that in the past six months to a year my actions and words may have made folks feel uncomfortable or upset which is the last thing I have ever wanted. We have worked hard to build this firm into what it is today – each of you is critically important – and I know that under the leadership of Doug, Al and the Management Team, you all will continue to thrive and fight for the issues and clients that matter most and what this firm has always stood for.
With complete respect,
In a staff meeting conducted this past Monday by the company’s managing director, Doug Gordon, and Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration Al Thomson, the staff were given a general picture of the allegations and confirmation of FitzGibbon’s leave of absence. They were encouraged to move on with their work while FitzGibbon put his out-of-office reply on and worked from home. They were also told the entire staff would undergo sexual harassment training.
“Nobody wanted to cover up for him,” Tracey said. “The thought of that made us sick.” She says the meeting focused on FitzGibbon’s harassment, but his victims agreed, “We can’t have them thinking that was just an offhand remark or an uncomfortable hug,” said Tracey. “This was touching over clothing and under clothing.”
“Once everyone found out what happened, we all said we would no longer work for a firm that has his name on it or that he was involved in,” the former media relations staffer said.
After employees made their terms clear, two days of closed-door meetings among the higher-ups followed. They scrambled to figure out a way to move forward without FitzGibbon, calling in his accusers for questioning. “One of those questions was, ‘Would you feel comfortable working at this firm if Trevor had anything to do with it?’ We said no,” Tracey said.
The staff were called together once more at 4pm on Thursday to find out the news: The company was shutting down, effective immediately. Gordon and Thomson reportedly told the staff that there was not a single person that would want to continue with FitzGibbon on board. And without FitzGibbon, they said, there could be no FitzGibbon Media. As the sole owner and stakeholder of the company, the power was his and his alone.
Just an hour after the staff meeting, FitzGibbon himself released a statement of his own:
Statement from Trevor Fitzgibbon to HuffPost on the harassment allegations behind closure of Fitzgibbon Media pic.twitter.com/at7sbbIcYK— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) December 17, 2015
As for these “irreconcilable differences” FitzGibbon references, one former staffer calls them “one hundred percent” false.
FitzGibbon did not respond to our request for comments on the former staffers’ allegations.
In the wake of these allegations, another former staffer, who asked not to be named, admitted to the Daily Dot that she had been assaulted on more than one occasion by FitzGibbon. She describes an incident earlier this year when he asked her to join him in a meeting with a new client. This was after months of inappropriate text messages and dinner and drinks invitations, the staffer, who we’ll call Emily, told the Daily Dot.
“Right as he’s telling me about the client, he starts getting closer to me in the chair he’s sitting in,” Emily said. She felt uncomfortable and asked him to respect her space, but he dismissed her fears. As she was leaving, she said, he asked if they could hug. As she went for the hug, he pulled her into his lap and pressed her against his chest. Then she pushed him away, and asked, “Why would you do such a thing?”
By the time the Austin retreat came around, she says she was constantly looking over her shoulder to see if FitzGibbon was in her vicinity.
“Every time I saw him, I feared him,” Emily said.
She describes hiding in the bathroom and moving seats at meetings to avoid him, feeling fear every time she caught his gaze on her.
While she escaped the retreat without incident, the allegations of others compelled her to come forward to HR with some of what had happened. She did not reveal to anyone her allegations of sexual assault by FitzGibbon until her conversation on Friday morning with the Daily Dot.
In the hours since the staff found out the company would cease to exist, they’ve banded together to swap recommendations for counseling, support, and job opportunities. They also issued a joint statement.
STATEMENT: Former Fitzgibbon Media Staffers Respond to Sexual Assault and Harassment Allegations Against Trevor Fitzgibbon”The team that comprised Fitzgibbon Media is incredibly sad and disappointed to confirm that allegations have been made against Trevor Fitzgibbon, Fitzgibbon Media founder and President, for sexual assault and harassment of multiple female staffers. Staffers reported over a half dozen incidents of sexual harassment and at least two involving sexual assault committed by Trevor Fitzgibbon against his own employees.
“For decades, Trevor presented himself as a champion of the progressive movement, claiming to support and respect women and feminist issues, from equal pay to reproductive rights, but his actions prove a hypocrisy so great that Fitzgibbon Media closed its doors today, as we could no longer continue working under his leadership. We lost our jobs standing up for what’s right, to ensure a safe workplace for all — and while we may have been left without jobs, benefits and long-term healthcare, we have our integrity and each other.”We are devastated to see our beloved place of work closed at the hands of such a coward and hope to continue working on the social and political issues we love and care so deeply for in the future.”
The former employees have also received widespread support from former clients, with a number of them issuing statements of their own. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue wrote in a statement that her organization was “distressed and saddened by the alleged misconduct of the FitzGibbon Media president.” MoveOn.org Civic Action Executive Director Anna Galland and Political Action Executive Director Ilya Sheyma wrote that they were “shocked and dismayed by the allegations of sexual assault and harassment at FitzGibbon Media.”
The co-founders of UltraViolet, a nonprofit women’s rights organization, Nita Chaudhary and Shaunna Thomas, wrote in a statement: “Sexual Harassment must be taken seriously and it has no place in the progressive movement or anywhere else.”
In the immediate aftermath of closing, Beth, former media relations staffer, said, “everyone feels awful and sad and grossed out.”
“We worked on a lot of very important things, from gun violence prevention, to women’s rights, to NSA stuff,” she added. “It’s a bummer that an agency that was focused on doing so many good things is no longer around because of one person doing awful things to people who worked for him.”
While one victim admitted to feeling some fear about speaking out, the most pressing concern is purely practical. “We don’t have jobs,” said Emily, adding that the worst had already happened.
“That’s what I feared when I was there,” said Emily. “Which is why I didn’t speak up, because I was afraid of retaliation or that he would fire me.”
Photo via Womens eNews/Flickr