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.
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.
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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.
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 presidential campaign by a raft of women.
And a nonprofit group founded by the Democratic activist David Brock, which people familiar with the arrangements say secretly spent $200,000 on an unsuccessful effort to bring forward accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump before Election Day, is considering creating a fund to encourage victims to bring forward similar claims against Republican politicians.
Activists on the right are also involved. 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., until then 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.
Those pushing the claims say they are just trying to level a playing field that has long favored powerful men, discouraging their victims from coming forward, and silencing many who do using confidential settlements.
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 Senate Minority 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.
“I like to hype things in advance, and this looked pretty good,” Cernovich said. “I definitely learned a lesson there.”
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.
Roberts addresses sex harassment
WASHINGTON — Responding to the retirement of a prominent appeals-court judge accused of sexual harassment, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said the federal court system must do more to protect law clerks and other employees from abusive conduct.
“Events in recent months have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace,” the chief justice wrote in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary, released Sunday, “and events in the past few weeks have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune.”
That was an unmistakable reference to the sudden retirement of Judge Alex Kozinski two weeks ago after it was reported that 15 women had accused him of sexual harassment. Kozinski had served on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for more than three decades.
Roberts said he had assembled a task force to examine whether the court system’s procedures for addressing inappropriate conduct were adequate.