(Written By Nick Corasaniti and Michael M. Grynbaum)
Michael Bloomberg said Friday that he was willing to release three women from nondisclosure agreements with his company so they could discuss their complaints about him publicly, reversing himself from his position at this week’s Democratic presidential debate when he came under fire from his rivals for resisting such a move.
But Bloomberg’s decision was seized upon as insufficient by the Democratic rivals who had denounced him during the debate, setting off a new round of sparring on the eve of the Nevada caucuses in which a representative for Bloomberg hit back at Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the trouble she has encountered invoking her ancestry.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, said officials at Bloomberg LP had identified three nondisclosure agreements made with women related to “complaints about comments they said I had made.”
“If any of them want to be released from their NDA so that they can talk about those allegations, they should contact the company and they’ll be given a release,” Bloomberg said in the statement. “I’ve done a lot of reflecting on this issue over the past few days and I’ve decided that for as long as I’m running the company, we won’t offer confidentiality agreements to resolve claims of sexual harassment or misconduct going forward.”
But the statement by Bloomberg did not appear to release all former employees of his media and technology company from such agreements. For instance, it did not say he would allow people to speak out if they had signed nondisclosure agreements after complaining of harassment from any person other than Bloomberg.
The shift on the nondisclosure agreements came as Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals campaigned in Nevada on the final day before the state’s caucuses Saturday. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, knocked on doors in the Las Vegas area seeking votes, and former Vice President Joe Biden joined a cookout and precinct captain training with supportive union members in Las Vegas, where he emphasized his long-standing support for labor.
Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned in California amid the disclosure that he had recently been briefed by intelligence officials on Russian efforts to aid him in the Democratic primary race.
Bloomberg, who is skipping the first four nominating states and will join the race on Super Tuesday on March 3, faced scathing criticism from his rivals at the debate Wednesday about his refusal to release women from nondisclosure agreements. Warren confronted him with the question: “So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?” Bloomberg said he was not.
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Following the debate, allies of Bloomberg had grown particularly concerned about the issue and Bloomberg’s response, which was garbled at times and seemingly flippant at others.
“None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg responded, amid groans from the audience. “There are agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that’s up to them. They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.”
The harsh questioning seemed to fluster the mayor, whose debate performance was largely panned, and top aides took responsibility for poorly preparing the candidate.
Warren said on Friday that Bloomberg’s decision was “just not good enough.”
“Michael Bloomberg needs to do a blanket release so that all women who have been muzzled by nondisclosure agreements can step up and tell their side of the story in terms of what Michael Bloomberg has done,” she told reporters after stopping for a taco as she campaigned across the city.
She took particular issue with Bloomberg’s limiting the release to just three cases. “If there are only 3, then why didn’t he sign a blanket release?” she said. “If he’s limiting the number, then you can’t know whether there were 3 or 30 or 300. And that should not be in the control of Michael Bloomberg.”
The Bloomberg campaign defended the decision in response to Warren’s criticism. Kevin Sheekey, the campaign manager, wrote on Twitter that “3 is the total number of NDAs that have been ID’d over thirty+ years pertaining directly” to Bloomberg.
Earlier, Tim O’Brien, a senior adviser to Bloomberg, said on CNN that he thought Warren had found an issue that “she doesn’t want to let go of” and instead pointed to her past comments about her ancestry.
“There was a lot of concerns about claims Sen. Warren had made about her own ancestry when she applied to colleges,” he said. “She acknowledged publicly that she had made a mistake. She asked the public to give her a second chance and realize sometimes that people make mistakes. I think it would behoove everyone involved in this particular discussion to be forgiving.”
Biden’s campaign also condemned the move, saying, “Today’s release essentially tells the public nothing — we don’t know how many women signed these NDAs, what percentage of NDAs this represents, or what categories of signed NDAs exist that are excluded.”
One of the three women who is being released from her agreement is Sekiko Sakai Garrison, a former saleswoman at Bloomberg LP, a Bloomberg campaign aide said Friday. Garrison sued the company in 1997, describing a misogynistic workplace atmosphere that culminated, according to the suit, in Bloomberg reacting negatively upon learning that she was pregnant.
According to the lawsuit, Bloomberg told Garrison, “Kill it,” referring to her baby. When Garrison sought clarity, Bloomberg allegedly went on to complain about the number of female employees in his office who had become pregnant, according to the suit. Bloomberg has denied making that remark, and the company eventually settled with Garrison and issued no admission of guilt.
Garrison declined to comment Friday.
The Bloomberg campaign aide said that the two other nondisclosure agreements stemmed from complaints within the company, rather than from lawsuits. The aide declined to provide additional details about the identity of the two women.
Bloomberg has a history of making demeaning, derogatory and sexist remarks, and lawsuits have painted his company, in the early days, as something resembling a frat house.
The decision by Bloomberg to limit the NDA release to only those pertaining to his personal interaction drew widespread criticism from civil rights groups and activists.
“It’s a start, it’s at least an acknowledgment that NDAs are inappropriate, but it’s not nearly enough because a leader leads and he is the leader of Bloomberg LP,” said Julie Roginsky, one of the founders of Lift Our Voices, a nonprofit group that works to end nondisclosure agreements that deal with workplace environment issues. “There’s no reason the chairman is protecting predators at his own company.”
Roginsky said that two women had recently contacted Lift Our Voices and confirmed that they had nondisclosure agreements for toxic workplace and harassment complaints with top executives at the company who were not Bloomberg.
The group also said that the process Bloomberg created — requiring a request to be released — also made it more unlikely that women would come forward.
“His saying that the women should come to him to be released is not the way that it should be handled,” said Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor and another founder of Lift Our Voices. “They should just have a statement saying ‘you are released.’”
The mayor’s debate performance also drew criticism from Sanders, who said in an interview released Friday that he was surprised by how unprepared Bloomberg seemed onstage and predicted that Trump would “chew him up and spit him out” in a general-election debate if he won the nomination.
Asked by Anderson Cooper of CBS’ “60 Minutes” whether he was less worried about Bloomberg as a rival for the nomination after the debate, Sanders turned the question around and renewed his attack on Bloomberg’s campaign spending from his personal fortune.
“I am worried about an unprecedented amount of money being spent on a campaign,” Sanders said. “And — you know, we’ve never seen anything like this in American history. And I just think, though, that the American people will rebel against this type of oligarchic movement. We are a democracy. One person, one vote. Not a guy worth $60 billion buying an election.”
Although Bloomberg is not competing in the Nevada caucuses this weekend, he has been rising in national polls and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to boost his candidacy. And despite having amassed no pledged delegates to this point, his campaign has called on rivals to exit the race so that he can run head-to-head against Sanders.
It was also disclosed Friday that the state Democratic Party has asked all caucus site leaders to sign nondisclosure agreements of their own that would keep them from talking to the news media. State party officials said it was standard operating procedure.
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