A group of victims has sued the American Federation of Government Employees over the conduct of the union’s former top leader.
The victims sued former AFGE National President J. David Cox, as well as several other current national union leaders, in federal district court last month.
The lawsuit, which plaintiffs filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, detail a series of allegations from former union members and staff members who say they experienced sexual harassment, verbal abuse and inappropriate behavior from Cox. They also accuse AFGE national leadership of looking the other way when confronted with these complaints.
AFGE declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, citing pending litigation. Some allegations described in the complaint are already under internal investigation, the union said in an email to Federal News Network.
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One of the plaintiffs was Cox’s former driver for a decade. According to the complaint, Cox sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and racially discriminated against him for a period of 10 years. An AFGE member, Annette Wells, filed the complaint with her son, who is one of the unnamed plaintiffs in the case.
A second unnamed plaintiff said Cox engaged similar harassment and discrimination while he served as the president’s driver for nearly two years.
The contractor that provided transportation services for Cox and AFGE made similar allegations. Waqas Kalyar, the owner of Capital Chauffeur Services, also accused Cox of sexually harassing and discriminating against him.
The lawsuit also charges the union, current AFGE National President Everett Kelley and several other members of the national leadership council for failing to process internal disciplinary charges and take action on other complaints against Cox.
“As officers, Cox and the named AFGE elected officials took an oath and had a responsibility to act in utmost good faith in managing the affairs of the organization,” the lawsuit reads. “AFGE officials breached their fiduciary duties to the labor organization by failing to report, investigate and take disciplinary action after receiving numerous sexual and other misconduct complaints filed against Cox.”
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory, punitive and other damages for the emotional distress they endured, according to the lawsuit. They’re also seeking a court order for an independent, neutral federal monitor to implement an anti-discrimination training and enforcement program for AFGE leadership and executive and general counsel staff, as well as other union officers, employees and members.
“As we have explained in the past, when allegations against former President Cox came to light, AFGE took immediate action to investigate and recommit to an environment that does not tolerate discriminatory, harassing or otherwise unacceptable behavior at any of our activities, events or meetings,” the union said in a statement Tuesday to Federal News Network. “Discriminatory, harassing and bullying behavior is contrary to the mission and values of our great union, is not what we stand for, and behavior like this will not be tolerated by AFGE — from any individual at any level.”
The plaintiffs’ complaint is long and detailed, and their allegations describe incidents that date back to 2014.
The complaint, for example, describes two separate incidents where Cox sexually harassed and behaved inappropriately with hotel staff members that had hosted two AFGE events.
It describes how Cox reportedly approved exorbitant expense reports from his colleagues and signed off on career and salary promotions to cover up his actions, the plaintiffs said in their complaint.
AFGE national leadership ignored prior complaints from union members, who accused Cox of spending union resources for his own personal business. One claimed Cox spent $90,000 of AFGE resources on personal limousine services back in 2017.
Had national leadership followed up on the complaint, the plaintiffs said, “defendants might have uncovered the fact that Cox was using the union’s car service to frequent strip clubs and bars, to procure male prostitutes and to sexually harass Plaintiffs John Doe #1 and John Doe #2, and Plaintiff Kalyar,” according to the court filing.
In addition, the union bungled complaints from former AFGE Communications Director Brett Copeland and failed to fully investigate a wide range of other charges from Rocky Kabir, Cox’s former assistant, the plaintiffs said.
Copeland and Kabir’s allegations were among those first reported by Bloomberg Businessweek and other media outlets.
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Working IDEAL, the consulting firm AFGE hired to investigate claims made against Cox, said the allegations from both Copeland and Kabir were credible and supported by other witness statements and substantial evidence.
According to Working IDEAL’s findings, which it released in mid-March, Cox had “significant authority” over the handling of equal employment opportunity and other internal complaints at the union. The senior human resources position was often vacant at AFGE, meaning it was up to the union’s general counsel office to handle EEO complaints and investigations. But the HR and general counsel offices report directly to the national president.
Employees described the general counsel office as “an arm” to the national president, Working IDEAL said.
“This approach to triaging workload — and decisions not to pursue further investigation in some cases — hindered AFGE from effectively learning about and responding to Cox’s conduct,” the report reads. “The evidence we obtained does not establish that any senior leader knew the full picture of sexual misconduct and other inappropriate behavior by Cox.”
Some AFGE employees told Working IDEAL they were hesitant to come forward with their concerns, either because they feared retaliation or they didn’t believe the union would address them.
Since Working IDEAL released its findings, AFGE said it has hired a human resources director who will help the union make policy and other cultural changes. The AFGE HR department is now handling and responding to EEO complaints, and the union has adopted a new code of conduct for its events.
AFGE has begun an investigation into other internal charges against Cox, which weren’t covered in the Working IDEAL report, the union said.
The union has also formed a special committee, which will review recommendations from Working IDEAL and will suggest further policy changes to AFGE national leadership.