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In late 2018, in the midst of a race for Chicago mayor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was caught in a crisis. One of her top aides had been accused of grabbing a woman’s legs and crotch in a crowded cab a few years prior.
Preckwinkle fired the aide, claiming she had “zero tolerance for this,” and assembled a task force to address sexual harassment. Tina Tchen, one of the well-known women behind the ascendant #MeToo organization Time’s Up, was tapped to join that task force—even as the Chicago Tribune reported that Preckwinkle had been warned about her aide’s behavior toward women months earlier.
Emily Miller, an Illinois political consultant and a friend of the woman at the center of the allegations against the Preckwinkle aide, was hopeful about Tchen’s involvement. She’d warned an adviser in Preckwinkle’s orbit months earlier. Finally, she thought, there will be somebody who gets it.
“I’d been trying to get people to pay attention on my friend’s behalf since the spring before,” Miller recalled. “People just don’t pay attention. I thought she would.”
Miller introduced herself to Tchen in an email in late November. “If your schedule permits, I’d love an opportunity to chat on the phone or meet for a cup of coffee regarding the current state of affairs,” she wrote in an exchange obtained by VICE News.
Tchen wrote back by the end of the day, thanking Miller for reaching out. “Would be happy to meet or talk,” Tchen said. “Would love to sit down in person if we can make it work.”
The meeting never happened, because Tchen’s team stopped replying to Miller’s emails. Later, Miller learned, not only was Tchen participating in the task force but she was also endorsing Preckwinkle for Chicago mayor.
So Miller was infuriated when, last month, a report from the New York attorney general’s office found that the Time’s Up leadership had advised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office about a letter that sought to discredit Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo aide who’d accused the governor of sexually harassing her. It felt like history was repeating itself: The leaders of Time’s Up had sacrificed sexual misconduct survivors, and their allies, in favor of preserving their proximity to power.
That dynamic is now at the heart of the controversy facing the group once heralded as the harbinger of women’s equality in the workplace. Founded in 2018 by a coterie of immensely influential women in Hollywood and politics, just as the social media wave of the #MeToo movement had started to recede, Time’s Up pledged to fight against sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. But in the years since, the organization has been plagued by allegations that it’s more interested in protecting the powerful than listening to and helping sexual misconduct survivors.
The leaders of Time’s Up had sacrificed sexual misconduct survivors, and their allies, in favor of preserving their proximity to power.
Tchen resigned on Thursday, but survivors and advocates say that the issues at Time’s Up go beyond Tchen’s leadership. Four women who’ve dealt with Time’s Up in connection to Illinois-based sexual misconduct scandals, as well as four others who’ve tried to enlist the help of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, told VICE News that they’ve failed to see the Time’s Up apparatus live up to its lofty promises. Some are not so sure that it can truly disentangle itself from the Democratic political machine—from power, writ large—and re-focus on survivors.
In the Cuomo report’s wake, more than 130 survivors, former and current Time’s Up clients, and former Time’s Up staffers signed onto an open letter to the organization, demanding structural reform and detailing how the group had “lost its way.” That letter’s demands, including the call for a third-party investigation into how staffers and board members “have been approached by, offered advice to, or are representing perpetrators of harm,” remain, despite Tchen’s resignation.
“On a fundamental level, it’s about believing women and believing people, survivors, victims. Believe us and believe that we are worth taking the time for. We are worth more than whatever relationship you have in your rolodex,” said Miller. “If you can’t understand how your own entanglements with power are preventing you from seeing what’s actually happening in front of you, then it’s time to go.”
Technically speaking, Time’s Up is not a singular organization; the advocacy collective possesses multiple main branches. There’s the Time’s Up Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity, and Time’s Up Now, a 501(c)(4) charity; the latter group can engage in lobbying. On 2019 tax records, Tchen is listed as the principal officer for both organizations. She does not have an official role with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is run as a separate project housed at the National Women’s Law Center, although she has been described as a co-founder.
Over the last year, Tchen’s corner of the Time’s Up universe has been repeatedly pulled into controversies. In June 2020, it drew fire for its apparent refusal to support a documentary about the rape accusations made against music producer Russell Simmons. (Time’s Up told the Hollywood Reporter that it supported Simmons’ accusers, such as through offering legal and security support.)
In March 2021, a lawsuit accused Time’s Up Foundation board member of silencing a woman trying to report sexual harassment. When Time’s Up leadership stood by the board member, numerous members of the sister group Time’s Up Healthcare resigned in protest. (The lawsuit has since been settled. Roberta Kaplan, Time’s Up’s then-chair and the board member’s attorney, told VICE News at the time, “The record is clear she did everything she could to support the plaintiff.”) Weeks later, the Daily Beast reported that Time’s Up staffers struggled to navigate the group leaders’ unwavering loyalty to its powerful—and, potentially, problematic—allies.
Now, that loyalty may have doomed the #MeToo cornerstone.
The August report from the New York attorney general’s office found that Kaplan, who is also a famous women’s rights lawyer, had been sent the letter about Boylan by a top Cuomo aide after Boylan tweeted in December 2020 about her experience working for Cuomo. Alongside a person who’s described in the report as “the head of the advocacy group Time’s Up,” Kaplan decided that, with some edits, the letter was fine, according to the report. (Almost everyone else consulted about the letter, the report found, “thought it was a bad idea.”)
Kaplan soon resigned from Time’s Up after the report’s release, while Tchen issued a lengthy, apologetic open letter.
“When our then-Board Chair Robbie Kaplan contacted me about actions in Cuomo’s office, I responded believing that, as they had been in the past, his office was interested in doing the right thing for women,” Tchen wrote. “The facts revealed in the Attorney General’s findings—that the letter was drafted by Cuomo as part of an ongoing effort to undermine the survivors—were completely unknown to me until the investigation’s report was released. I would never participate in or condone, in any way, such an attack or strategy.”
In that letter, Tchen also made a curious observation.
“I believe we were used as cover for heinous actions going on behind the scenes and, more recently, being used to distract and distort the actual legal and moral violations that occurred. But that in no way excuses my oversight and mistakes in failing to protect survivors and our work,” she wrote in an open letter. Then, she added: “I recognize that similar scenarios may have played out in the past that I failed to see for what they were.”
For women involved in anti-sexual misconduct efforts in Illinois politics, it seemed blindingly clear what “similar scenarios” Tchen was referring to: Tchen’s endorsement of Preckwinkle.
“When Time’s Up is so preoccupied or too close to power-slash-is the center of Democratic establishment politics, how can they be for supporting women who are victims of abuses of power?”
Ahead of the endorsement, Tchen had told Miller over email that she had a “crazy travel schedule,” but copied two people who helped manage her time. Over the next several days, Miller and Tchen’s assistant went back and forth over potential times for the pair to meet, according to an email exchange obtained by VICE News. By Dec. 6, the assistant suggested that Dec. 11 looked like the best bet. Miller agreed to the date and waited for the assistant to confirm an exact time.
She never heard back.
A little over a week later, Miller tried to follow up. Yet again, there was no response.
Tchen’s endorsement of Preckwinkle also stunned the woman who had accused the Preckwinkle aide of touching her crotch and legs. She believed that Preckwinkle “sought political cover from Time’s Up to make it clear that she was an advocate for women,” she told VICE News. (The aide told the Tribune that he never intentionally touched the woman inappropriately.)
The endorsement left the woman, who VICE News is not naming due to the nature of her situation, unsure whose side Time’s Up was supposed to be on.
“At the end of the day, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace—it is an abuse of power, plain and simply,” the woman said. “So when Time’s Up is so preoccupied or too close to power-slash-is the center of Democratic establishment politics, how can they be for supporting women who are victims of abuses of power?”
In an interview earlier this month, Tchen told the 19th that she had endorsed Preckwinkle—who ultimately lost the mayoral race—in a personal capacity. As a fundraiser for former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tchen is a known quantity within Chicago political circles. In the task force’s report, Tchen is credited as a partner at the law firm Buckley LLP.
But if the public was supposed to understand that Tchen was making the endorsement as an individual, then it wasn’t very clearly communicated: Although Tchen was not yet the president of Time’s Up, campaign literature referred to Tchen’s connections to the organization, calling her a “co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.”
In response to a detailed list of questions from VICE News, Time’s Up emailed VICE News Tchen’s resignation statement, as well as a statement from the Time’s Up Foundation board of directors, which called Tchen’s resignation “a demonstration of accountability.”
“Now is the time for Time’s Up to evolve and move forward as there is so much more work to do for women,” Tchen wrote in her statement. “It is clear that I am not the leader who can accomplish that in this moment.”
Time’s Up did not respond to a VICE News reporter’s follow-up email pointing out that the statement did not answer VICE News’ questions nor addressed the broader structural criticisms that have been levied against the group.
“It seems almost like an establishment, status-quo organization, rather than an organization that’s solely focused on creating a safe space for victims of workplace harassment,” Alaina Hampton, one of the faces of the Illinois #MeToo movement, said of Time’s Up.
Too few groups offer comprehensive legal and public relations help for sexual misconduct victims; with its national prominence and esteemed pedigree, Time’s Up—and, in particular, its Legal Defense Fund—can not only seem like the best option for survivors, but the only one.
But while the Legal Defense Fund has helped Hampton, other women told VICE News that the group’s actions did not match its advertisements. And Hampton, too, has started to wonder.
In 2018, Hampton filed a federal lawsuit against the Democratic Party of Illinois and several other Democratic organizations. Hampton said she had been sexually harassed by a top aide to Democrat Michael Madigan, who spent more than three decades as the Illinois House Speaker and was widely regarded as the most powerful man in state politics. After she reported the aide, Hampton said, Madigan’s political machine retaliated against her.
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund helped fund Hampton’s federal lawsuit over the allegations, which was settled in November 2019. (At the time of the settlement, which did not include an admission of wrongdoing, a Madigan spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune, “Creating a fair and welcoming workplace is a priority for Speaker Madigan and the Democratic Party of Illinois.”)
“I would say that the financial support was pretty instrumental in my case,” Hampton said of the Legal Defense Fund. “But other than that, they had almost no involvement at all.”
In the past, she’s referred them to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. But now, she said, “I don’t feel like I can refer people to that organization in good faith any longer.”
“When we fund any case, we intentionally do not have involvement with legal strategy or decision making in the case because those decisions should be made by the client and the client's attorneys, not the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund,” Uma Iyer, a spokesperson for the Legal Defense Fund, told VICE News in an email. “We do require quarterly reports from attorneys regarding the progress of the case and reach out if we have questions based on those reports.”
Because of her prominence, Hampton said she regularly is contacted by victims of sexual misconduct looking for help. In the past, she’s referred them to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. But now, she said, “I don’t feel like I can refer people to that organization in good faith any longer.”
Amid the strife engulfing Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation, the Legal Defense Fund has largely escaped scrutiny, thanks in part to the separation between the organizations. The Legal Defense Fund has curated a network of attorneys who offer free initial consultation to survivors and doles out money to survivors pursuing lawsuits.
As of late July, the Legal Defund Fund has committed to funding nearly 300 cases—out of roughly 450 that have applied—as well as approved 127 for public-relations assistance. More than 5,200 people have been connected to attorneys for workplace sexual harassment-related requests.
Four women told VICE News that they tried reaching out to the Legal Defense Fund for help—and had received lackluster responses.
The Legal Defense Fund has also spent $16.5 million on what Iyer called “program expenses,” including more than $10.5 million on litigation expenses, as of June. Another $1.3 million has been spent on operating costs. When survivors receive a settlement from a case funded by the Legal Defense Fund, the group takes a cut from the attorneys’ fees.
But the open letter from survivors asked that the Legal Defense Fund join the rest of the Time’s Up machinery in reforming itself. Four women told VICE News that they tried reaching out to the Legal Defense Fund for help—and had received lackluster responses. One woman continued to work with the Legal Defense Fund, while the other three gave up on seeking aid from it.
To be certain, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund can’t be expected to solve the wide-ranging, complex issue of sex discrimination. And even in the best of circumstances, sexual misconduct survivors do not have it easy in court. But for survivors who may have lost jobs, friends, and their reputation, learning that the Legal Defense Fund—the organization that said it aimed “to create safe, equitable, and respectful workplaces for all”—can’t help them, can be crushing.
In February 2020, an Illinois woman reached out to Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for help with a workplace sexual harassment situation that involved a government agency run by a Democrat. (Since she is alleging sexual harassment, VICE News is not naming the woman.) Distrusting email, she filled out an intake form, she told VICE News.
She never heard back. Two associates of the woman followed up with the head of the Legal Defense Fund, Sharyn Tejani, on separate occasions in April and June 2020. In the email exchanges, which VICE News has seen, Tejani suggested that the woman reach out over email. She did not offer to contact the woman herself or ask any follow-up questions.
The woman has since spent $50,000 of her own money on a lawsuit, she said. She’s still struggling to fight an attorney who can represent her. She hasn’t worked. She’s dealing with depression.
“It may be that she thinks she has filled in the intake form but did not complete it so we can’t see it; that does happen sometimes,” Tejani wrote.
“I felt like it wasn’t important to them to make sure that I was safe or okay, that I had the resources that I need. I feel like if they really would have cared, they would have said, ‘What’s her phone number? Can we contact her? Does she mind saying it with us?’” the woman told VICE News. “They’re just making up excuses. I’ve worked in government for quite a while and I’m used to people who don’t really want to do their job but always have an excuse for everything.”
“The idea that we are not ‘adequately concerned’ or unresponsive is belied by our work,” Iyer said. “I have never worked with a more dedicated team of individuals as the TULDF team, who work day-in and day-out to be of service to survivors.”
After the email exchanges, the woman left a voicemail at the number listed on Legal Defense Fund’s website, said the woman, who provided VICE News with a contemporaneous note listing the call. Once again, the woman said, she did not hear back. (Iyer said that the Legal Defense Fund had “had no record of the outreach in question.”)
The woman has since spent $50,000 of her own money on a lawsuit, she said. She’s still struggling to fight an attorney who can represent her. She hasn’t worked. She’s dealing with depression.
“This is why people take their lives. This is why people battle with depression,” the woman said. “They give up. They give in. Their lives are never the same. You just wonder, how long can you keep going?”
Another woman told VICE News that, when she reached out to the Legal Defense Fund, she received an email with the names of three attorneys. They all told her that because her claim was beyond the statute of limitations, they couldn’t help her, the woman said; it felt like a dead end, rather than the innovative lawyering she’d expected out of the United States’ preeminent legal defense fund for sexual misconduct survivors. Reaching out to the Legal Defense Fund was, in her opinion, no better than Googling. (VICE News is not naming the woman due to the nature of her situation.)
In an email, Iyer said lawyers in their network are informed of the fact that people without a live legal claim can still be provided with Legal Defense Fund media assistance.
“It is also the case, however, that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is primarily a project focused on justice in the courts—and sometimes either because a statute of limitations has expired or for other reasons, the law may not provide good solutions,” Iyer said. “That is exactly why the National Women's Law Center also works to reform and strengthen these laws in the states and in Congress.”
In December 2018, Lauren Weingarten received an email from the Legal Defense Fund with the names of three attorneys who, she hoped, could help her deal with a case involving CBS. But none of them were in the right state. She needed lawyers who practiced in Pennsylvania. Instead, the Legal Defense Fund sent her attorneys in North Carolina, where Weingarten lived at the time; none of them are listed with the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
“It was a bit shocking and disappointing, because it felt like they didn’t actually read the information I had sent to them.”
Still, Weingarten said she called two of them. Neither got back to her. The third was a family law attorney, so she didn’t bother.
“It was a bit shocking and disappointing, because it felt like they didn’t actually read the information I had sent to them,” Weingarten said of the Legal Defense Fund. “It was disheartening because I shared a lot of personal information in good faith—vulnerable information. It made me feel unheard and it kind of made me question how organized they were.”
When an employer and worker are located in different states, or the incident happened in a different state, it can be difficult to determine the correct locale, Iyer told VICE News. “If this happens[,] that the attorneys cannot help the person, and the person reaches out to let us know, we send them a new list of attorneys.”
Afterward, for weeks at a time, Weingarten “would try to be okay with me not coming forward,” she recalled. “But I just felt really compelled to. I really wanted some accountability and I wanted to be heard.”
In mid 2019, Weingarten reached back out to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund; she thought there were no other organizations that could help her. The Legal Defense Fund did end up connecting her to a lawyer and helping pay for her case, and Weingarten ultimately settled with CBS.
In late 2019, Chelsey Glasson reached out to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund for help for a pregnancy discrimination case she wanted to file against her former employer, Google. An attorney for the fund told her that financial support from the fund was limited to cases of “workplace sex harassment,” according to an email obtained by VICE News. When Glasson’s then-attorney spoke with a representative from the Legal Defense Fund, they confirmed that they wouldn’t be able to back Glasson’s case, Glasson said.
“Time’s Up is this organization that I’ve always looked up to and I had such high hopes at that time that they would be able to intervene and support me,” Glasson said. “To be told that you don’t qualify, that it’s not sexual harassment—when it is sexual harassment—it was just another punch in the gut and another form of gaslighting. So it really hurt. It knocked me down. And it made me question, for a long time, do I just give up at this point?”
Although the fund will supply attorney referrals to people who reach out about “sex discrimination at work,” per its website, its financial assistance is limited to “select cases of workplace or career-related sexual harassment and related retaliation.” This mirrors larger law around sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination, which have been historically walled off from each other, said Laura Beth Neilsen, director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, who specializes in workplace sexual harassment law and employment civil rights. But today, she said, most people see pregnancy discrimination as a facet of sex discrimination.
“To be told that you don’t qualify, that it’s not sexual harassment—when it is sexual harassment—it was just another punch in the gut and another form of gaslighting.”
“I would think that organizations dedicated to women’s equality in the workplace would be concerned with pregnancy discrimination,” Nielsen said.
“It’s one of the primary ways that women get tapped out in their careers, because they’re either not considered early in their career because people think, ‘Oh well, they might have a baby,’” Nielsen continued. “If they have babies, it’s, ‘Well, she can’t be fully committed because she has children of her own.’”
Iyer said that such criticism is “criticism is for not doing a thing we never set out to do.”
“The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund was always set up to focus on cases of sex-based harassment in the workplace,” Iyer said. “The funding directed to the initiative was earmarked for that work and it was clear from the beginning what the [purpose] of the fund was.”
Glasson has since filed a lawsuit against Google, without involving Time’s Up. The case is set to go to trial in December. (In response to a request for comment on Glasson’s case, a Google spokesperson said in an email, “All instances of inappropriate conduct reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we have simplified how employees can raise concerns, and provided more transparency into the investigations process at Google.”)
Miller also reached out to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, since she was looking for help navigating a watchdog investigation into Preckwinkle’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegation. (In July 2019, months after Tchen’s endorsement, the investigation found that Preckwinkle’s conduct was “reasonable,” but that Cook County, where Chicago is located, needed to reevaluate how it handles sexual harassment claims.) She did not ultimately use the Legal Defense Fund’s suggestions for lawyers; as an attorney herself, Miller decided she could handle the process.
The Cuomo report has sent Time’s Up into a tailspin, and its top brass is scrambling to right the organization. Beyond Tchen and Kaplan’s resignations, Time’s Up has said that its staffers are not bound by non-disclosure agreements, after Turkos asked Tchen—who had reached out via email—to release them. The group also pledged to the 19th earlier this month to re-evaluate the group’s conflict of interest policies. When it comes to Time’s Up staffers’ ability to participate in the electoral process, Tchen told the outlet, “This is an area we are now learning, this is a learning process for us, and that can be fraught too.”
Time’s Up Foundation board member Hilary Rosen, one of the most famous Democratic strategists in the U.S., told the New York Times that Time’s Up didn’t have “formal conflict policies” for people looking to do political work beyond the #MeToo group. The Times reported that board members talked to Tchen about potential conflicts, as well as listed out financial ties in paperwork, but Rosen said, “We had a level of trust among each other.”
Miller has found the PR redemption tour to be exhausting. Time’s Up should have known that it needed better conflict of interest rules years ago, she said.
“The fact that now they say, ‘Oh, we just didn’t have a formal policy’—that’s malpractice,” Miller said. “This is a very complicated issue. That is true. And there’s a lot of feelings and there’s a lot of privacy concerns, for sure. But if you’re gonna careen on mountain roads going around cliffs, you have to have guardrails or you’re gonna go off the cliff. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, well it’s dangerous to drive there.’”
“You create a solution to keep yourself from careening off the path,” she continued. “And they didn’t do that and people are hurt.”
Alison Turkos, who spearheaded survivors’ open letter to Time’s Up, said that the organization, including the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, is seeing the fallout from the Cuomo report as a situation to be managed, rather than a chance to reflect. She doesn’t believe that Tchen’s resignation is an example of the organization taking responsibility.
“Tina’s going to resign and it’s going to be a way for them to say that they don’t have to do a full investigation, that they don’t have to turn over her emails, that they don’t have to do a full third-party investigation,” Turkos said. “It’s a way for them to attempt to shield themselves from further accountability.”