Can an Accused Sexual Predator Defend Women in the Workplace?

Charles R. Davis
May 18, 2017 · 7 min read

His former employees don’t think so.

Trevor FitzGibbon used to run a major progressive public relations firm, representing clients from the Center for American Progress to The Intercept, until late 2015, when FitzGibbon Media was abruptly shut down after “[m]ultiple female employees came forward with accusations of sexual harassment and assault,” as The Huffington Post reported, noting FitzGibbon had also been accused of sexual harassment at his previous job with Fenton Communications.

In a joint statement, FitzGibbon Media staff confirmed that they had “reported over a half dozen incidents of sexual harassment and at least two involving sexual assault committed by Trevor FitzGibbon against his own employees.”

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Julian Assange (L) and Trevor FitzGibbon.

After shuttering his own company, FitzGibbon disappeared. A year and half later, though, he’s back with a public relations push, planting fake news about the allegations against him — and the women who made them — in a publication, Shadowproof — known as FireDogLake until July 2015 — for which he himself has written (as have I).

United States Attorney in D.C. Clears Trevor FitzGibbon of Sexual Misconduct Charges” is the bold headline to the story by Shadowproof’s Kevin Gosztola, which was soon shared by Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, himself accused of sexual assault (and once a client of FitzGibbon’s firm). According to the piece, the U.S. Attorney decided not to file criminal charges in response to three complaints of sexual misconduct against FitzGibbon.

“The decision by the U.S. Attorney clears the way for FitzGibbon to return to work in public relations,” Gosztola writes.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, Bill Miller, told me that “we don’t comment on charging decisions,” but then confirmed that “we decided to dismiss the case.” However, that is not a proclamation of innocence. “Typically,” he said, “it means that we had insufficient evidence to go forward.”

The decision not to pursue criminal charges — which the majority of FitzGibbon’s accusers themselves did not pursue — “clear the way” for FitzGibbon to return to public relations. That depends on the court of public opinion, and that’s where FitzGibbon is fighting now.

Along with Ann Szalkowski, described as “a rape survivor and public relations consultant,” FitzGibbon is launching something called Mission Critical Media.

“I wasn’t there for anything that did or didn’t happen,” Szalkowski is quoted as saying in the piece, “so I can’t give a firsthand answer.” Still, despite a professed unfamiliarity with accusations that led FitzGibbon to dissolve his last company, she continues: “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.” She chalks up years of allegations against FitzGibbon — there’s a one-year statute of limitations in New York and Washington, DC, where FitzGibbon Media had offices — to conflicting notions of proper boundaries in the workplace. Accordingly, Mission Critical Media’s first project will be “Dignity for Our Daughters,” she said, which will advocate for the “vulnerable in the workplace.”

FitzGibbon, who was there, told me he is “sincerely sorry to any woman who I made feel uncomfortable.” But when pressed, FitzGibbon wouldn’t confess to anything more than being a man who perhaps crossed a few boundaries. “Life is complicated,” he said. “Somewhere along the way I went from being a hugger to being a posterchild for ‘rape culture.’ It was a very subtle move.”

Asked twice, FitzGibbon declined to offer a reason why his many accusers would lie.

The platform he was given allowed him the space to attack the credibility of the vulnerable women in the workplace he now claims he wants to help, with Gosztola — using text messages and screenshots of Facebook chats provided him by FitzGibbon himself — putting on trial and deems guilty of taking down a good man for the sake of their careers.

To rebut one complaint of sexual assault, Gosztola cites text messages that “show a consensual conversation between two adults,” as if the issue were allegedly nonconsensual speech, not nonconsensual sex. But the real target is not the minority of those who filed criminal complaints, but those who went public.

Molly Haigh, co-founder of the public relations firm Megaphone Strategies, is taken to task for mentioning during a 2016 speech at Netroots Nation that “FitzGibbon had sent sexually explicit photos to women” she knew. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office never was given a single photo to help them substantiate a criminal case against FitzGibbon,” Gosztola writes, conflating a public claim with a criminal complaint, and blaming a third-party for others’ decision not to give police photos to bolster unrelated allegations.

For a man of the left, Gosztola has tremendous faith in the managerial class. “On top of that,” he writes, “FitzGibbon said there were never any photos sent to any women.” Indeed, “Management never mentioned any photos during interviews.” Additionally, “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.”

“During the time that FitzGibbon Media was in operation,” Gosztola recounts, “there was only one sexual harassment complaint filed. It came from Haigh.” What follows is editorializing conjecture, meant to explain why all these women — only one of whom ever complained to management at the firm founded by the alleged predator upon which their careers depended — would make false claims that left them unemployed.

“Multiple staff,” Gosztola writes, “believed the shutdown 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.’” The source for that claim is management: Al Thomson, former vice president of finance and administration. “Doing this was ‘essential to people being able to work in the progressive movement’ afterward,” Thomson claims without elaboration.

While the piece has much to say about the many women who have accused FitzGibbon of sexual misconduct, Gosztola never discloses his own relationship with the man.

In a May 2014 piece on controversy surrounding U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, Shadowproof founder Jane Hamsher — who bought me lunch in 2010 — gives a shout out to “Trevor FitzGibbon, who worked tirelessly on Chelsea’s behalf by facing down a hostile media.” Indeed, as I reported in 2015 after conversing with FitzGibbon, his public relations firm was being paid to promote Manning in the media (all three of FitzGibbon’s posts on Hamsher’s website are about the case).

Gosztola covered Manning’s trial for Shadowproof, and the world of professionally pro-Manning people in Washington, DC, could fit in a Petworth dive bar. Indeed, Gosztola and FitzGibbon are friends on Facebook.

When I asked about this, Gosztola referred me to a story on Jezebel. “I knew Trevor FitzGibbon before I wrote this story but I was not friends with Trevor FitzGibbon,” he told the website. “And I knew him because of his professional work and because our work had intersected on Chelsea Manning.” The Jezebel piece also notes FitzGibbon liquidated his company and fired all his employees, contradicting the claim that employees effectively fired themselves for the sake of their careers.

But the ties between FitzGibbon, Shadowproof, and its predecessor, FireDogLake, are not merely personal or coincidental.

As Adweek reported in 2011, there appears to be a financial relationship as well. As FitzGibbon Media employee Naomi Seligman said at the time, ”we do not represent Bradley Manning directly.” Rather, “We work with the Bradley Manning Advocacy Fund, an independent public advocacy network.”

The Bradley Manning Advocacy Fund, so named because Manning had not yet come out as a transgender woman, was launched by FireDogLake/Shadowproof. According to a now-defunct fundraising page, donations would be used “to pay expenses related to the advocacy and support of Bradley Manning,” with the fund promising to “organize events, issue press releases, [and] recruit spokespeople,” or: the sort of work engaged in by FitzGibbon Media (Adweek was reporting on one such rally outside the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, where Manning was imprisoned.

Speaking to Jezebel, Gosztola added that, “at the moment,” Trevor FitzGibbon is not donating money to Shadowproof. “There is no quid pro quo,” he said. “This is not transactional journalism.”

In addition to denying the accusations against him, FitzGibbon said he has not donated to Shadowproof, though he did not respond when asked if he’d donated to his predecessor. He did note that its founder, Jane Hamsher, had promoted the fund for Chelsea Manning that funded his public relations firm (as I spoke to him about in 2015).

Gosztola, meanwhile, did not respond when asked why he did not disclose this connection, though in a post on his blog he notes he told Jezebel that he did not “feel comfortable talking about my relationship with Trevor FitzGibbon because that has nothing to do with the story,” which (recall) was about Trevor FitzGibbon.

FitzGibbon, for his part, told me he had met Gosztola “one time in person,” and conceded that he “turned to Kevin” with his story after other journalists opted not to give him a platform.

Melissa Byrne, a former staffer on U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and an activist I met during Occupy DC in 2011, is one of many women who have accused FitzGibbon of sexual misconduct — and one of many who were not pleased to see an attempt to rehabilitate him in liberal media.

“Gross that you believe Trevor,” she wrote to Gosztola on Twitter. “As someone groped by him in 2007, please fuck off.”

FitzGibbon did not respond when asked if he remembered that.

As for his former employees, “We have not forgotten the treatment we faced because of Trevor FitzGibbon’s blatant disregard for our lives, our work and our families,” reads a statement sent to me by former FitzGibbon Senior Digital Director Sean Carlson. “We were left without jobs and without healthcare. Some of us are still rebuilding our lives and our careers.”

Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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