Bloomberg’s Sexual Blind Spot

Testimony of Would-Be Mayor Bares Indifference to Harassment, Misinformation on Rape

In a 1998, 272-page deposition never before made public, Michael Bloomberg said he would believe a rape charge only if it was supported by "an unimpeachable third-party" witness, and accused an ex-employee who said she'd been raped by a Bloomberg executive of "extortion." Asked if he believed "false claims of rape are common," the GOP mayoral contender and CEO of a vast financial-information empire replied: "I don't have an opinion." [Read excerpts.]

Bloomberg's comments are drawn from one of three sexual harassment lawsuits that have dogged him since 1996, all of which contended that "a hostile environment of persistent sexual harassment and the general degradation of women" existed at the 8000-employee company of the same name that Bloomberg founded and ran. In addition to his uninformed testimony about rape, Bloomberg also displayed a chilly indifference to sexual harassment laws and guidelines during the deposition. Bloomberg declined to discuss these issues with the Voice, though a company spokeswoman insisted it has "zero tolerance" for harassment or rape. While the rape case of sales representative Mary Ann Olszewski has been mentioned in occasional news accounts, it has not attracted as much attention as a companion case filed by Sekiko Garrison, another member of the predominantly female, and usually young, attractive, and short-skirted sales force.

The Garrison case focused on a claimed pattern of gender discrimination, with several women quoted in court documents as saying that they'd "lost lucrative portions of their sales territory, were denied business opportunities and received inferior bonuses" once they got married or had children. Garrison alleged that Bloomberg told her twice to "kill it" when she informed him she was pregnant, adding "Great! Number 16," a reference to the number of women then on maternity leave.

Illustration by Sean Beavers

Bloomberg denied saying it during the lawsuit, but in a voice-mail message he left her immediately afterwards, he said he'd heard he'd upset her, adding both that he'd "certainly never said anything" and that he "never meant anything." He also said—in a message that was not reported in prior news stories—that he didn't know until another executive told him that "we have six people pregnant."

The company settled the Garrison case, without admitting wrongdoing, for what the Voice has learned was "a very high six-figure" amount, making it appear more credible than Olszewski's, which was dismissed by a federal judge in 1999. But a closer examination of the Olszewski record reveals that the dismissal had nothing to do with the merits of the case—her lawyer had ignored repeated deadlines to submit a response to a motion to end the case. Indeed, a new lawyer revived the case in 2000, allowing it to mysteriously disappear from the court docket just as Bloomberg's mayoral candidacy emerged earlier this year.

While Olszewski, then 28, claimed she was forced out of her job shortly after making the rape charge in a May 25, 1995, meeting, the accused rapist, Bryan Lewis, who was Olszewski's immediate supervisor, remained in a top position throughout the litigation. Court records also indicate that the company conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Olszewski, attempting to get coworkers to portray her as "flirtatious" or a "sex hound." On the other hand, attorneys for Lewis and the company successfully thwarted repeated attempts by Olszewski to determine if the company was paying Lewis's personal legal bills, and the company declined the question now.

Though Bloomberg testified that he "became aware" of the allegation "instantly" after she told Louis Eccleston, the head of the company's 500-member sales force, he said all he did about it was "ascertain that we had commenced the appropriate investigative process and were treating all parties appropriately." The investigation eventually resulted in a 60-page report on Olszewski that company attorneys refused to turn over in the litigation. But one sales staffer questioned during the probe, Michael Medd, said in a phone conversation secretly taped by an Olszewski ally that he'd been asked three times to provide "reputation" information about her.

"I don't think she was very provocative, and I keep telling them I'm not going to change my words," said Medd, who complained at the time that the company was pressing him for the name of a client who could provide a "bad character portrayal" of Olszewski. Said Medd: "I don't think she was a sleep-around person." Bloomberg said in his deposition that he recalls "some discussion as to her relationships with clients, but I don't remember the specific situation," adding that his knowledge of this was "nothing other than to ensure that we were making the appropriate investigations."

Bloomberg took the position that Olszewski's refusal to cooperate with the internal probe—combined with the fact that she didn't raise the issue until two years after the alleged incident—made him "skeptical" of her allegation. He never spoke to either Olszewski or Lewis about the charge—though he testified he "knew" Lewis and "could vaguely picture" the tall, statuesque Olszewski—and admitted he neither read anything about rape nor consulted rape experts when the charge surfaced. The company first published a handbook with a section about sexual harassment procedures in 1996, after both the Olszewski and Garrison charges surfaced.

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