Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has been a leading voice in Congress on combating sexual misconduct — and has made women’s issues a central pillar of 2020 presidential run. But now, the senator faces questions in her own handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former aide.
Gillibrand’s office had investigated allegations against the aide, Abbas Malik, last year, but Malik was not fired until a media outlet contacted the senator’s office last month.
His firing came after reporters from Politico approached Gillibrand’s office with information from two witnesses the senator’s staff had earlier failed to interview, despite the urgings of the woman who made the initial accusations.
Gillibrand’s office opened a new investigation and fired Malik the following week.
Gillibrand told reporters outside the Capitol on Monday evening that she had no regrets about the way her office handled the case.
“As we do in all cases, we take these kinds of allegations very seriously,” Gillibrand said.
She told reporters that her staffers had conducted a “professional and thorough investigation” last year during which they were able to substantiate claims of derogatory comments made by Malik but were “not able to substantiate the sexual harassment claims.”
During that investigation, Gillibrand said her office “interviewed all current employees that had relevant information.”
Neither the senator nor her spokeswoman explained why Gillibrand’s staff had failed to contact the two witnesses who were recommended to them by the initial accuser. Both witnesses were former employees of Gillibrand’s office.
The Washington Post tried to contact Malik for comment via his Senate email Monday night but did not receive a response.
In an interview with Politico, the accuser said she felt let down by the way Gillibrand’s office handled her accusations.
“When I had the courage to speak up about my harasser, I was belittled by her office and treated like an inconvenience,” she said.
The woman told Politico that Malik, who was Gillibrand’s driver and military adviser, began making unwanted and increasingly aggressive advances toward her after he received a promotion in July that placed him in a supervisory position. She also said he frequently made crude and inappropriate remarks about women, including female staffers in Gillibrand’s office.
After she reported the alleged harassment and Gillibrand’s office investigated, Malik was reportedly given a warning and his promotion was revoked. The woman said he then retaliated against her by not keeping her informed of changes to Gillibrand’s schedule as he had previously done.
The woman later resigned in protest of the way Gillibrand’s office handled her accusations as well as the aftermath of the investigation, during which one senior Gillibrand aide had reportedly told the woman that she, too, had committed fireable offenses.
Several other former employees told Politico that Malik often made inappropriate comments; one of the former employees whom Gillibrand’s office failed to contact said he once told her that another woman “couldn’t get laid unless she was raped.”
Gillibrand has developed a reputation in the Senate as being at the forefront of efforts to combat sexual misconduct, particularly on the issue of sexual assault in the military. During a Senate hearing on the issue last week, she spoke out forcefully in defense of her long-held position that such cases should be handled outside the military’s chain of command.
“When we’ve asked service members, ‘What would you do? What would make you actually report?’ Overwhelmingly they have answered, ‘If you took it out of the chain of command,’” Gillibrand said at the hearing, noting that the perpetrator is often a member of the chain of command.
She was also the first senator to call for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken in 2017 after eight women accused the Minnesota Democrat of groping or forcibly kissing them. Franken has denied some of the allegations and said he remembers others “very differently.”
Some Democratic donors and others on the left have criticized Gillibrand for urging Franken to resign, while others have argued that such critics are using Gillibrand as a scapegoat for Franken’s own actions.
Days after she kicked off her presidential campaign in January, Gillibrand defended her call for Franken to step down, telling reporters:
“With Senator Franken, it’s sad for many people, but after eight allegations of sexual harassment and groping, credible allegations at the time, I just couldn’t stay silent,” she said.