POLITICS
02/23/2018 10:22 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2018

A Progressive Firm Fired A Partner For Allegedly Assaulting A Female Staffer. Soon She Was Gone, Too.

Revolution Messaging says it didn't force out the victim. Former staffers say otherwise.
Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost

By all outside appearances, 2016 was the year Revolution Messaging arrived. The upstart political firm, founded by alumni of Barack Obama’s presidential runs, was the mastermind behind the punk-rock vibe of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and helped him raise a staggering $218 million in small donations.

But inside the firm, the staff was in revolt.

Revolution forced out a female employee in early 2016, just two months after one of the company’s partners ― her supervisor ― had been accused of physically assaulting her at a company holiday function, several people with knowledge of the incident said. The firm had quickly fired the partner. But multiple Revolution employees worried that the woman’s departure was retaliatory ― and symptomatic of a workplace in which some women and people of color felt overlooked or marginalized.

By mid-February of that year, employees at the Washington, D.C., firm were circulating a draft letter to management demanding to know whether the woman had been forced out as an act of retaliation.

“If it is the case, as we fear, that [her] employment was involuntarily terminated just two months after being assaulted by her supervisor and a partner at the firm,” the letter read, “that would be untenable.”

The upheaval belied Revolution’s public image as a firm on the cutting edge of the progressive movement. Founder Scott Goodstein was a key member of Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 digital team. As the firm expanded, Goodstein brought on other Obama alumni like Arun Chaudhary, the White House’s first official videographer. The company’s clients included liberal stalwarts such as the Teamsters union and high-profile “resistance” players like Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.), the feminist advocacy group UltraViolet and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Revolution helped Chaudhary’s wife, Laura Moser, launch Daily Action, an app that encourages people to contact elected officials once a day. (Moser is now running for Congress in a Texas swing district that Democrats hope will be part of a 2018 wave.)

People were very frustrated by the hypocrisy of the leadership in the face of the values they espouse. A former Revolution Messaging employee

But Revolution’s leadership failed to live up to the ideals that are its stock in trade, according to nine former employees. They described a company where the most thankless positions were usually held by women and where people of color sometimes felt their opportunities for growth or visibility were constrained. “People were very frustrated by the hypocrisy of the leadership in the face of the values they espouse,” one former employee said.

Most of the former staffers who spoke for this story remained under non-disclosure agreements and feared legal repercussions if their names were revealed. None of these former employees suggested that Revolution’s clients ought to have known about the company’s troubled internal culture. Nor did they think their negative experiences were universal, given that the firm’s different departments are siloed and personality-driven.

Revolution disputes the former staffers’ description of the firm and of the circumstances of the former employee’s departure. A company spokeswoman, Moira Muntz, defended its handling of the alleged assault and denied that it fired the female employee in retaliation ― or that it forced her out at all.

But Revolution does not dispute the story of the alleged assault.

The alleged assault of a Revolution staffer took place in Washington's Logan Circle neighborhood in the early hours of Dec. 4
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
The alleged assault of a Revolution staffer took place in Washington's Logan Circle neighborhood in the early hours of Dec. 4, 2015.

‘We Have A Serious Problem’

The incident occurred sometime in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 2015. Revolution had rented an ivy-draped mansion in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood for out-of-town employees to stay with their spouses and domestic partners. After the holiday party ended, the afterparty moved there.

In an email sent to Goodstein around 5 a.m. with the subject line “We have a serious problem,” a male Revolution staffer wrote that he and other employees had seen the Revolution partner in question mixing alcohol with a prescription drug. The partner went upstairs several times, the male staffer wrote, to wake up Janson Hartliep, the female staffer’s boyfriend. “He was aggressive but unintelligible,” Hartliep told HuffPost.

Then, back downstairs, the Revolution partner allegedly pushed the female staffer against a wall and held her there. Hartliep was asleep, but the woman described the incident to him later that morning. “She felt threatened and unsafe,” he said.

The male staffer also didn’t witness that part of the incident, but he wrote that he saw the female staffer flee up the stairs, shouting, “Get the fuck away from me.” He wrote that the partner ordered him to “deal with her” and that the partner yelled the woman’s name up the stairs.

“I went upstairs to talk to her,” the male staffer added. “She was shaking and crying. She told me he pinned her to the wall and she was scared.” While they were talking, the male staffer wrote, a third Revolution employee texted to ask if the female staffer was OK. The female staffer told the male staffer that the third employee had witnessed the incident.

“We have built an environment of trust and freedom,” the male staffer wrote in the email to Goodstein. “We want to be more than co-workers. We want to be friends. Today, [that] freedom was abused. … I have no idea how these situations are best handled and only want to participate in the continuation of a safe, productive and fun working environment.”

The male staffer’s email arrived in Goodstein’s inbox at 5:17 a.m. Revolution stripped the partner of his role in the company within hours of receiving that message. (The former partner did not respond to HuffPost’s attempts to reach him through his personal website, on social media and at phone numbers listed in public directories.)

That same day, Chaudhary and Goodstein met with the female employee. “It means a great deal to feel heard,” she wrote to Chaudhary afterward. (Revolution shared her email.)

“Always. And 100 percent do not hesitate to reach out with anything,” Chaudhary replied. “There was no good outcome, but there was the right outcome, and making sure you are empowered and productive here has to be at the heart of what we do.”

In the weeks that followed, Revolution began to revamp its internal policies to prevent a similar incident from happening again, attempted to help the female staffer feel safe and supported — including by offering to connect her with medical or psychological services — and stressed that the incident wasn’t her fault, Muntz said.

But the partner’s termination wasn’t the end of the woman’s troubles with management. Two months later, she was gone as well — under circumstances that still aren’t clear.

Scott Goodstein (center) participates in a January 2006 rally organized by MoveOn.org Political Action as part of a
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Scott Goodstein (center) participates in a January 2006 rally organized by MoveOn.org Political Action as part of a nationwide anti-corruption campaign.

‘Scott Called And Fired Me’

“We acted swiftly to fire the responsible employee within hours of receiving the complaint — before the following noon,” Muntz said, citing Revolution’s “zero tolerance policy” for inappropriate behavior. “Months later, the other employee left the firm. Her departure was completely unrelated to her previous complaint. Her departure was not forced. We supported her and did not want to see her go.”

The woman’s departure was a result of discussions she was having with Revolution about a new role there, the firm said. Rather than continue those conversations, the firm said, “she decided to move on, and as it turns out had already been interviewing for a new job.”

As evidence, Muntz provided the text of an email that the female employee addressed to Revolution’s staff. “I have decided to move on from Revolution Messaging,” the email reads.

But two former employees contradicted the company’s story, saying the female staffer told them she was being forced out. Nor did she immediately begin another job. Text messages and chat logs viewed by HuffPost back this up. “I do not have a job any longer,” the woman wrote in one such exchange. “Scott called and fired me.” The messages, in which she said she expected to negotiate for severance, were dated roughly two weeks before co-workers received her resignation note.

If Revolution is characterizing her departure as voluntary, that’s not accurate. Janson Hartliep, the victim's boyfriend

Erin Rappleye, the female staffer’s roommate, said they were both at home when the woman received the call. “She came out of the home office, obviously upset, and told me she had just been fired,” Rappleye said. Soon after the call, the female staffer, who worked remotely, was shut out of her Revolution accounts.

“If Revolution is characterizing her departure as voluntary, that’s not accurate,” said Hartliep, the female staffer’s boyfriend. He declined to elaborate on any conversations they had about her departure.

“We don’t know why anyone would characterize her departure this way [as involuntary],” Stacey Wharam, Revolution’s human resources officer, responded. “We wanted her to stay and the company went to every effort towards that end.”

In the weeks leading up to her exit, her former co-workers said, the woman felt as if she was under undue scrutiny because of the reported assault and the difficulties it had created for her team. The fired partner was replaced as her supervisor by an interim team leader, and there was friction as he adjusted to his new responsibilities.

At the time, the female staffer was playing a crucial role in Revolution’s work for the Sanders presidential campaign. It was her job to prioritize the flurry of requests other divisions made to the tech team ― for changes to the fundraising platform or the way Sanders’ website solicited emails – and to see that they became a reality. Colleagues were frustrated to lose her at a crucial moment in the race, just days after Sanders won the New Hampshire primary and days before the Democratic caucuses in Nevada.

“To lose that resource in between New Hampshire and Nevada? It made absolutely no sense,” said Michael Whitney, a former Revolution employee who agreed to speak on the record. “It was like having the rug pulled out from under us, forget that we were all friends and had a great rapport. It just felt like they were trying to get rid of a problem.”

People felt hesitant to sign because there was not an explicit culture at Rev that said it’s OK to speak out in order to make a better workplace together. Michael Whitney, a former Revolution Messaging staffer

The female staffer’s former colleagues passed around a draft letter demanding answers. Calling her “a pleasure to work with,” “hard­working” and “damned good at what she does,” the letter expressed admiration that the assault hadn’t affected her performance and disbelief that she could have been fired “for cause.”

“Revolution Messaging’s apparent treatment of [our co-worker] not only falls short of what would seem to be the obvious and proper course of action for any person who experienced such trauma, but directly contradicts the values of a progressive firm like ours,” the draft letter read.

Five employees — including Whitney, who coordinated the effort — agreed to sign the letter, although two said they would sign only if it garnered a certain number of signatures. But ultimately, the signers were too nervous about damaging their own prospects at the firm to send the letter.

“That is one of the most disappointing things,” Whitney said. “The fact was, people felt hesitant to sign because there was not an explicit culture at Rev that said it’s OK to speak out in order to make a better workplace together.”

Muntz confirmed that Revolution’s partners never received the draft letter and said they wished the employees had gone to human resources or management to voice their concerns. Whitney’s suggestion that the woman’s firing was retaliatory was “speculating,” the firm said. “Michael Whitney had no access to the communications between [the former female employee] and the firm and absolutely no first-hand knowledge of the circumstances of [her] departure,” Wharam said.

“The firm believed her and took immediate action to assist and support the female employee after receiving the complaint — asking if she wished to call the police or file a police report (she did not), asking if she was assaulted (she said she was not), offering her time off from work (she declined),” Muntz wrote in an email.

After HuffPost provided evidence that the woman had described the incident as an “assault” in contemporaneous accounts, Revolution said it would not dispute her characterization.

Before he went to work for Revolution, Arun Chaudhary was the official White House videographer for President Barack Oba
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images
Before he went to work for Revolution, Arun Chaudhary was the official White House videographer for President Barack Obama.

‘Hired To Not Fully Disrobe’

Overall, former employees linked Revolution’s personnel problems to the fact that it grew rapidly from a tiny upstart, under leaders who were close friends and gifted political operatives but weren’t experienced at running a full-fledged company. The number of people working there seemed to double every few years. In 2011, its website listed eight employees. By 2015, there were more than 30. Today, there are nearly 80.

“The company grew too fast and they really sort of liked being this there-are-no-rules, we’re-so-different place,” said one ex-employee. “But in the real world there are rules and processes, because otherwise shit gets out of control.”

And the female staffer’s departure was not the only incident that left some people at Revolution feeling uneasy.

Several former employees said Chaudhary employed a rotating cast of young female assistants whom he sometimes belittled and bullied in profanity-laced tirades. Former employees described the dynamic as a breach of normal workplace boundaries. Chaudhary’s outbursts were often followed by flattering apologies or claims that his behavior should be blamed on the pressure cooker of the campaign trail. (He and his assistants sometimes traveled together on a punishing schedule.) One former assistant compared working for Chaudhary to being in an emotionally abusive relationship.

HuffPost was able to independently corroborate specific examples of Chaudhary’s behavior, but is withholding the details to protect the privacy of the women involved.

In response, Revolution said that only one of Chaudhary’s assistants had left the position because she was overwhelmed or unhappy, and that both men and women have worked as his assistant. Chaudhary has also changed his management style and cut the responsibilities of his assistant in half based on employees’ feedback, the firm said.

“Trying to fill the shoes of my first assistant, who has since risen through the ranks and become our COO, was a challenge,” Chaudhary said in a statement. “There were times where my frustration was verbally demonstrated which, upon recognition, I followed with a strong and warranted apology.”

In 2012, according to a former female employee, Goodstein and partner Keegan Goudiss hired male strippers as a joke for Chaudhary’s birthday.

Revolution said that was “not quite right.” A group of men and women hired just one performer — the firm believes he worked for a candygram company and stripping was not part of the services he offered — to mark the launch of a book Chaudhary had written, Revolution said.

“This was back in the early days, several years ago,” Muntz said. “Arun was doing a lot of media interviews around his book launch and to celebrate this milestone — and poke fun at all the attention he was getting — a group of colleagues came up with the idea to hire a guy to come in looking like a reporter and then do a little partial strip tease. He was hired as a gag and did not fully disrobe and was specifically hired to not fully disrobe.”

She added that “it was regrettable and certainly not the kind of thing the firm would do today. These days the staff bonding activities involve trips to soup kitchens, cooking contests, and our annual agency sock design contest.”

‘I’ve Never Witnessed Anything But His Respect’

Former Revolution employees have also questioned the firm’s commitment to racial diversity. In a 2017 survey of 10 people of color employed at Revolution, which an employee conducted in secret, a majority were lukewarm when asked if they felt represented at the firm or believed that Revolution prioritized diversity in hiring. “We’re better at supporting it in theory but not practice,” one person wrote in the space provided for comments. “I don’t see a commitment to diversity especially in senior roles.” (All but a handful of Revolution’s senior leadership are white.)

A majority of the survey respondents thought that Revolution recognized their contributions, regardless of their backgrounds, and felt confident in voicing their opinions. But they were skeptical of the firm’s commitment to diversifying its ranks.

“We have whole departments without a single [person of color], and it seems like there have not been meaningful attempts to change that,” another person wrote. “Most often it is POC advocating to hire POC, while it’s merely something that managers consider but don’t actively do anything about.”

Revolution never saw those survey results, Muntz said. In an all-staff survey, initiated by Revolution and administered by an outside firm, 79 percent agreed with the statement “My organization is dedicated to diversity and inclusiveness.” Just four respondents disagreed. More than 90 percent agreed with the statements “Employees treat each other with respect,” “My organization has a safe work environment,” and “I am satisfied with the culture of my workplace.”

Today, women constitute 59 percent of its employees and hold 66 percent of its leadership positions, and it is in the process of selecting an outside diversity consulting firm, Revolution said.

These days the staff bonding activities involve trips to soup kitchens, cooking contests, and our annual agency sock design contest. Moira Muntz, spokeswoman for Revolution Messaging

“We have been deliberately and consistently growing and evolving our firm to more closely mirror the diverse America we fight for each day,” Goodstein said in a statement to HuffPost. “It’s a work in progress, but we are proud that the majority of our hires over the last two years have been women and people of color.”

Revolution asserts that it does practice its principles in private, even when doing so is potentially costly. The firm dropped Rep. Alan Grayson’s Senate campaign in 2016 immediately after reports surfaced that the Florida Democrat had abused his ex-wife, and Muntz said the firm has fired or declined to take on clients who have mistreated Revolution’s female employees.

Digital strategist Holly Fussell said the firm stood up for her when she publicly accused an outside Democratic strategist of rape. The partners vehemently defended her amid the backlash and offered her time off, public relations advice and legal resources. “Revolution Messaging was the only reason I wasn’t forced out of politics altogether,” she said.

Chaudhary was particularly vocal in his support, Fussell said.

“I’ve never witnessed anything but his respect for women and staff,” she said. “I’ve seen Arun interact with interns, senators, and high profile celebrities, and he greets each with the very same warmth, interest, and respect. In my years working with him, Arun has demonstrated time and time again that he is both committed to intersectional feminism and eager to grow as an ally.”

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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