Last January, with the #MeToo movement in full force, Mayor Bill de Blasio conceded that he wasn't sure whether his administration was keeping track of sexual harassment complaints made in the municipal workplace.
"I am pleased to say this has not been a phenomenon that I have heard coming up in our administration in any significant way, thank God, and it’s something we take very, very seriously and we would address very seriously in each instance," the mayor said, when asked about the data during a press conference. "While being always watchful and vigilant, I am happy to say I have not seen that kind of behavior."
Barely a month later, the mayor would quietly push out his acting chief of staff, Kevin O'Brien, following complaints of sexual harassment made by two city employees. No public announcement was ever made, and the decision was revealed only through documents obtained by the New York Times earlier this month. By then, O'Brien had found a new job at Hilltop Public Solutions, a lobbying firm closely connected to de Blasio. Defending the decision to not publicly disclose the true cause of O'Brien's firing, the mayor blamed Hilltop, noting that "it's a rare employer who doesn’t do a reference check on an employee."
But it turns out that the 36-year-old political aide had already faced accusations of sexual harassment prior to joining the mayor's inner circle. According to a new report in the Times, O'Brien was ousted from his job as senior adviser at the Democratic Governors Association in Washington for a similar misconduct allegation, just a few weeks before he was hired as de Blasio's deputy chief of staff. The complaint was backed up by a subsequent investigation, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock, whom O'Brien represented at the association, had been aware of it before O'Brien was quietly dismissed.
"There was no indication whether Mr. Bullock had reached out to warn City Hall officials about the harassment incident," according to the Times.
Kevin O’Brien has done an outstanding job as acting Chief of Staff as we went through a very intense 2017 and will continue with us in a senior capacity.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) November 30, 2017
A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, Eric Phillips, said that the decision to hire a credibly accused harasser was the result of Bullock withholding "adverse information" about O'Brien, and thus did not represent a failure on the part of City Hall.
"I’m sure everyone will look at what could have been done differently, if anything," Phillips told Gothamist. "But to suggest failure on the City and [Department of Investigation's] end is not accurate. The practices are very thorough and they were followed. That doesn’t make them foolproof 100% of the time."
In addition to the normal vetting process—which includes a lengthy DOI questionnaire, and checking with former employers—O'Brien's hiring was also seemingly based on his close connection to political strategist Nicholas Baldick, who started Hilltop Public Solutions. Emails reluctantly released by the city show Baldick angling to get O'Brien a job in the de Blasio administration multiple times, with the mayor eventually agreeing to "slot him in as Deputy Chief of Staff and see how he does" (starting salary: $175,000).
Baldick has denied knowing about either of the harassment complaints against the employee he recommended, and then eventually re-hired. O'Brien has since been fired from Hilltop, and has released separate statements blaming complaints of harassment at both his previous jobs as the result of "horrible decisions" made while drinking.
In a phone call with Gothamist, Gloria Allred, a civil rights attorney who's represented women in several high-profile harassment cases, speculated that the "level of scrutiny" applied by the Mayor's Office into O'Brien's hiring may have been diminished due to his connection with one of de Blasio's allies. "There should be an independent process in the Mayor’s Office to vet a person, regardless of whether they are referred by a friend, a political donor, an ally or someone else," she said.
Allred added that the mayor now owes it to his employees to reevaluate both how candidates are vetted, and how complaints against alleged harassers are handled. "It doesn’t feel right to do business as usual, to go along and be satisfied with, 'Well, I didn’t know that he had a prior allegation,'" the attorney said. At the very least, according to Allred, the mayor could circulate an anonymous survey allowing staffers to review the policies and practices surrounding new hiring.
"After it's revealed that a high level employee has been previously alleged to have sexually harassed someone, and that there were more allegations made after he became an employee—at that point, there should be a review of both policies and practices at the Mayor's Office," noted Allred. "If I were the mayor I would want to know why I didn’t know, and how we can develop a process so that in the future I will know."