Nearly one and a half years ago, a prominent progressive public relations firm, FitzGibbon Media, abruptly shut down after serious sexual assault and harassment allegations were leveled against the firm’s founder.
Three criminal complaints were filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, but as of April 20, U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips declined to file any criminal charges against Trevor FitzGibbon. The U.S. attorney closed all investigations and complaints against him and will not pursue prosecution.
The women behind the complaints were represented by high-profile attorney Gloria Allred, who is well-known for publicizing her cases in the media. She currently represents several women, who alleged comedian Bill Cosby sexually harassed or assaulted them. She also represents three women, who accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. Yet, she never held a press conference or made public statements against FitzGibbon, which is unusual given how much media attention the allegations received after the firm shut down on December 17, 2015.
The decision by the U.S. Attorney clears the way for FitzGibbon to return to work in public relations.
“I am sincerely sorry for my behavior and for any women who were harmed,” FitzGibbon said in a statement. “Moving forward, I have a newfound compassion and sensitivity for what women go through on a daily basis and am committed to fighting against unfair power dynamics and fighting for equality for everyone—both in my own actions and whenever I see it.”
“While the criminal allegations against me were false, I understand why women may feel the need to take things to that level considering the harassment and abuse women endure on a daily basis and often go unheard.”
Ann Szalkowski, a rape survivor and public relations consultant, is launching Mission Critical Media with Trevor FitzGibbon.
“I wasn’t there for anything that did or didn’t happen so I can’t give a firsthand answer,” Szalkowski told Shadowproof. “But I can say that everything that I have observed and everything that I have learned about the situation suggests to me that there was no intentional wrongdoing on Trevor’s part and certainly that he does not present a danger to anybody.”
“I don’t know what happened with those women. The thing, too, is it can be perceived really differently by different people. There are times when I’m out and about as a woman and a guy, they like you and you’re sick of it, and so you feel harassed and you feel claustrophobic and you feel like you can’t escape and you feel like you’re being harassed all over again.”
Szalkowski continued, “And maybe this guy is just living this life. Or maybe he is just being over friendly and you have two different ideas of what boundaries are supposed to be. But the fact that we immediately shut down these conversations or we put up with things that bother us and put us in an icky place until it becomes like Def-Con 4 time, that means that we’re never addressing the problem before it becomes tragic for somebody.”
Szalkowski and FitzGibbon plan to work together on an initiative called “Dignity for Our Daughters,” which an announcement for Mission Critical Media says will promote equality and advocate for the “vulnerable in the workplace.”
“Unfair power dynamics can lead to harassment and abuse, yet they frequently go unrecognized until the damage is done. No woman should have to tolerate that, and no organization should face such vulnerability. Frankly, they don’t have to. With empathy, communication, and relentless standards for mutual respect, we can operate at a higher level, solving the problem before it takes root, or ruins lives.” the announcement for the firm states.
“In service of that mission, we collaborate with victims’ advocates, academics, and medical professionals specializing in gender equality. Our shared goal is to identify distinct methods to create a culture of Dignity for Our Daughters—a culture where women can flourish both in and out of the workplace.”
For many who had a visceral and understandable reaction to the news around FitzGibbon, it is very possible this development will not change their view of him. FitzGibbon would like this to exonerate him and clear his name, but what about individuals who think this simply confirms how difficult it is for women to obtain justice when they file sexual assault or harassment claims?
“The fact that really stood out to me was that no civil charges or civil suits were ever filed. Because you don’t really have to prove things to the same threshold to win a civil suit. You just have to kind of convince people that it is more or less plausible,” Szalkowski asserted. “You don’t have nearly the burden of proof that you have for the criminal charge, and they didn’t even bother filing a civil suit. Which tells me they didn’t feel very strongly about it.”
Szalkowski suggested it was a bit incongruous to suggest there is this huge case and claim a company is a “bastion of rape culture” but then turn around and not file a single civil lawsuit.
“You have a powerhouse of a lawyer named Gloria Allred. That’s weird. It tells me you didn’t really have a whole lot to work with,” Szalkowski concluded.
FitzGibbon’s attorney, Jeffrey B. O’Toole, said the statute of limitations for civil suits is one year in D.C. It is his understanding that there is “no statute left for anybody to pursue cases.”
In New York, the statute of limitations is one year for intentional emotional distress, and more than one year has elapsed since FitzGibbon had any alleged interactions with employees who might bring claims.
The Claims Against FitzGibbon
The narrative for what happened with Trevor FitzGibbon and FitzGibbon Media was largely defined by Sierra Pedraja, who alleged FitzGibbon “aggressively propositioned” her at a company retreat in Austin, Texas. She now works as the digital news editor for Detroit’s NBC News affiliate.
Pedraja admitted over email that FitzGibbon did not physically assault her, and she was never part of any lawsuit against him. In fact, she did not even know there were women who moved forward with criminal complaints.
Huffington Post reported FitzGibbon “asked if she modeled and requested that she send him a “maxim”-style photo, presumably referring to the men’s magazine that often features scantily clad women.” Pedraja responded, “I can’t! I’m trying so hard to get a job with you guys. I’d be tarnishing it.”
A review of Facebook messages shows FitzGibbon asked Pedraja if she had ever professionally modeled. She then informed FitzGibbon that she had done some kind of shoot for Maxim magazine.
“Nah, I did one thing for Maxim but three years ago,” Pedraja wrote.
“Mother of god. Incredible. Don’t be mad. It’s compliment,” FitzGibbon responded.
“Haha, I’m not mad. I appreciate it,” Pedraja replied.
FitzGibbon then asked for a good photo, the “Maxim one,” and also her phone number. Pedraja came back with, “Haha oh I have no idea where that one is.”
Pedraja declined to answer additional questions when emailed. “There is no benefit to me if I were to speak publicly about this again. All I can say is that although the media portrayed me in a certain light, I actually had very little to do with what happened.”
FitzGibbon admits he was flirtatious, unprofessional, and out of line.
The three claims that were filed against FitzGibbon in the District of Columbia came from three different women. Shadowproof has given the women pseudonyms to protect their identities.
“Alice” brought a first-degree sexual assault claim. It was alleged that FitzGibbon assaulted her in her office on December 4, 2015. It was also alleged that she was assaulted at the Hotel Lombardi on December 8.
Text message records between “Alice” and FitzGibbon show a consensual conversation between two adults. “Alice” sent nude photos of herself, and she also asked FitzGibbon to provide photos. He refused to send any nude photos to her.
“Britney” alleged FitzGibbon touched her buttocks against her will at the FitzGibbon Media office in D.C. during a hug.
The third complaint came from “Carol,” who claimed in March 2014 she was inappropriately hugged by FitzGibbon. It was a third-degree sexual abuse claim.
In an email that multiple staff in management positions saw on December 16, a person at FitzGibbon Media wrote, “I thought you should know that Trevor called [Carol’s] phone. I saw it ringing and so did everyone else. She showed us. She said it’s been happening since Sunday, and she hasn’t answered. He left a voicemail, but she didn’t listen to it in front of us.”
Phone records for “Carol’s” phone, which was an employee phone, show no calls from FitzGibbon.
Organizations Need Codes Of Conduct
Molly Haigh, who co-founded Megaphone Strategies with Van Jones, spoke at Netroots Nation in 2016 about FitzGibbon Media. She claimed FitzGibbon solicited eight women in one weekend during the company retreat in Austin. She also mentioned FitzGibbon had sent sexually explicit photos to women.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office never was given a single photo to help them substantiate a criminal case against FitzGibbon. On top of that, FitzGibbon said there were never any such photos sent to any women. Management never mentioned any photos during interviews.
“I think we need to go further, honestly, with our own organizations in creating codes of conduct that have clear understanding across the organization that if you break them that, you know, thank you but you’re done—instead of trying to rely on the legal system,” Haigh declared at Netroots Nation.
“We have to as a movement have codes of conduct within each organization that says here’s what you have to do to have the honor of working in this movement other than relying on the legal system.”
However, according to former senior vice president of finance and administration Al Thomson, who oversaw the human resources department of the firm, there was a clear code of conduct with zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace.
“There was an extensive policy manual. A copy was provided to every single person, and I have receipts from every single employee saying they received it and acknowledged the policy stated therein,” Thomson said. “The sexual harassment-safe workplace provisions are quite extensive. The procedure for raising any concern or complaint is very clearly spelled out.”
“Virtually every employee dealt with HR. There was an HR person. That’s how they got on payroll,” Thomson added.
An employee manual for FitzGibbon Media shows the firm had a strict prohibition against “unlawful harassment based on an individual’s protected status including but not limited to sexual or racial harassment. We strictly prohibit employees from harassing other employees or anyone else working with FitzGibbon Media, whether or not the conduct occurs on FitzGibbon Media premises or during working hours.”
It included a prohibition against “repeated unwanted sexual flirtations, advances, or propositions” and “offensive touching,” both of which were at the center of allegations against FitzGibbon. It also included no tolerance for “falsely denying, lying about, or otherwise covering up or attempting to cover up conduct that is prohibited by this policy.”
There was a clear reporting procedure. “If you experience, observe, or become aware of conduct that violates this policy, you must immediately report the possible violation to your managing director,” and, “If you do not feel comfortable reporting the possible violation to your immediate supervisor, you may report the possible violation to any other managing director, the business manager, or the president.”
And, it made clear, “FitzGibbon Media will promptly and thoroughly investigate all reports of unlawful harassment or discrimination.”
During the time that FitzGibbon Media was in operation, there was only one sexual harassment complaint filed. It came from Haigh. It was immediately investigated by the human resources department, and the person who was accused of harassment was counseled to change their behavior or they would be fired (even though the conduct was not sexual in nature).
When asked if she was personally afraid that FitzGibbon would have her blacklisted, Haigh said, “A lot of people who are thinking about reporting things like this are afraid of being blacklisted. They are afraid it’s going to end their career or cut off their connections. And I don’t think those fears are unfounded.”
“FitzGibbon Media was an incredibly difficult place to work for a lot of people. For a lot of women, for a lot of people of color, for a lot of people with disabilities, for new parents, and I think that’s the case with a lot of progressive organizations,” Haigh stated. “That they fail at this one key piece of creating safe work environments because they rely on the letter of the law instead of holding people to account, to a better level of human behavior.”
Thomson asserted this was not true of the firm. Haigh claimed a medical problem and was given “triple the allotted time” for recovery. She was “repeatedly given time off,” and it went on for three months.
“The idea that there wasn’t compassion or some kind of accommodation is blatantly absurd. The maternity and paternity-related family care was more generous than almost any other firm, recognizing we have a small staff,” Thomson added.
FitzGibbon was rarely in the firm’s New York or D.C. offices. He would work out of the Bowery Hotel in New York when he was working with clients, like WikiLeaks. He would be in Fredericksburg or Richmond or Charlottesville, where he lived so he could be with his family.
The Sole Villain Of FitzGibbon Media
Prior to heading FitzGibbon Media, he worked for Fenton Communications. He was accused of inappropriate hugging at that firm. He said his “heart dropped.” He recognized that what he was doing hugging people was a problem.
Lucinda Curbo, a former employee, shared her personal experience.
“As a client’s employee, I witnessed and experienced his support of all his young female staff members. Specifically, during an event where the client was accused of behaving wrongly towards women,” Curbo recalled. “Regardless of the jeopardy it put the status of the relationship between the firm and the client, he took the word (he was not present during the incident) of the young FitzGibbon staff member and supported her decision to no longer introduce female media members to my then-CEO who she believed to be acting inappropriately.”
“Specifically, she felt many of the media present at an event were being physically and sexually harassed/assaulted by the client. This same employee of FitzGibbon Media has since implicated Mr. FitzGibbon in inappropriate behavior, which I find very shocking.”
That individual, who FitzGibbon stood up for, was Molly Haigh.
In the course of gathering information for this report, it became evident that staff believed there were more people involved in sexual harassment than FitzGibbon. One former staff member suggested there were six people harassing staff members. Yet, only FitzGibbon became a focal point for outrage over the alleged rape culture at the firm.
Management also has no idea who four of the six people could possible be and were unable to corroborate this claim of six people involved in sexual harassment.
Amidst the shutdown of FitzGibbon Media, some of the staff believed only women assaulted should be on the record. Except the claim that FitzGibbon propositioned Pedraja was not a claim of assault at all.
Multiple staff further believed the shut down of FitzGibbon Media would send a signal to the world that the firm was some kind of haven for sexual harassment. There was concern that individuals would not be able to find jobs afterward if they did not paint Trevor as the “sole villain of FitzGibbon Media.” Doing this was “essential to people being able to work in the progressive movement” afterward.
FitzGibbon Media management wanted to have an outside firm, K&L Gates, investigate what happened. The staff was opposed.
“Virtually no staff member was willing to cooperate with an investigation. They wanted Trevor terminated. That was clearly their position,” Thomson shared. “The conversation was very, very, very clear that we will conduct an investigation and determine what happened and if—whether it’s termination or whatever action is needed—[that] would be taken.”
“The answer from the staff was they would not continue working for the firm if Trevor was not terminated. Any investigation that would have taken place was thwarted by the employees.”