AFGE’s top leader takes leave of absence amid sexual harassment allegations

The American Federation of Government Employees said Monday that its national president, J. David Cox, will take a leave of absence while it investigates allegations of sexual harassment against him.

Bloomberg Businessweek first reported the allegations against Cox, who leads the largest federal employee union. In his account to Bloomberg, Brett Copeland, AFGE’s former communications director, described a series of interactions that he said made him uncomfortable during a business meetings in Palm Springs, California, in 2017.

Copeland, according to Bloomberg, said Cox had stuck his tongue in his ear and asked him to check out the jacuzzi in his hotel room.

Cox denied the allegations. AFGE will launch an investigation into the matter.

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“It is my life’s work to lift up my sisters and brothers in the workplace, and I am truly sorry if I ever made anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or actions. That was never my intention,” Cox said in a statement, which was provided Monday afternoon to reporters. “That said, I cannot abide lies and scurrilous, politically-motivated attacks. I am a lifelong defender of due process and trust the investigation will sort the fact from fiction.”

In an Oct. 27 letter to members of AFGE’s National Executive Council, Cox said he “strongly refute[d] the allegations.”

Everett Kelley, AFGE’s current national secretary-treasurer, will perform the duties of the national president during his absence, Cox told executive council members.

“I do feel it is best that I step away from my role as national president so as not to serve as a distraction and to ensure there is no question about the integrity of the process,” Cox wrote. “At a time when federal and D.C. government employees are under daily attack, it is imperative that their union not be distracted from the task at hand.”

AFGE said it took “immediate action” when it learned of new allegations and reiterated that it was Cox who ordered an investigation into the matter.

The union’s executive board has examined the issue and referred the allegations to an independent committee, which will perform the investigation with help from the AFGE general counsel, the union said.

“This was done to ensure that an investigation would move forward quickly,” AFGE said in a statement.

The union said it will also refer the allegations to an outside investigator, who will be named soon.

Copeland was one of 10 people who told Bloomberg they had experienced or witnessed inappropriate behavior from Cox. They also said Cox made lewd comments about their bodies.

“AFGE’s greatest assets are our membership and our staff,” the union said in a statement. “Today, we will communicate our anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy to all employees, as we have done in the past, to ensure each employee understands the policy and the avenues available to them to address such behavior particularly in light of the recent newspaper report. We are wholly committed to a thorough, fair and expeditious investigation that will move forward in a way that’s consistent with AFGE’s values and ensures a safe, open working environment for all of our employees.”

Cox was elected to his third term as national president last year. He was first elected as AFGE’s national president back in 2012.

Cox was a vocal presence during the 2013 and 2018 government shutdowns. AFGE, along with several other federal employee unions, had been locked in legal battles with the Trump administration over the president’s three workforce executive orders for much of the past year.

The U.S. Court of Appeals earlier this fall ruled in favor of the Trump administration and overturned an August 2018 decision from a federal district court, which had initially invalidated nine key provisions of the executive orders.

AFGE and other unions have said these EOs will make it more difficult for them to represent federal employees.

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