IG Report Alleges Long History Of Sexual Misconduct From NY’s Transparency Czar
New York State’s expert on government transparency was fired back in June after a reporter came forward with an allegation that he sexually assaulted her at a Westchester diner. On Thursday, the state Inspector General released a report on its investigation of that expert, 72-year-old Robert Freeman, and found more than a dozen accounts detailing Freeman’s alleged misconduct stretching back to at least 2003.
Freeman had been the head of the state’s Committee on Open Government [COOG] since 1976, and was considered an international expert on government transparency. In New York, he wrote scores of opinions on the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and was a valuable source for journalists hoping to hold recalcitrant or opaque government entities to account. (Freeman was quoted in dozens of Gothamist stories over the years.)
According to the IG’s report, Freeman, whose position is appointed by the governor, used his unusual status and unique power to prey on government employees and journalists. COOG operates under the Department of State, and in 2003, a State Department employee reported to her superior that Freeman kissed her on the cheek in a hotel lobby during a trip. Freeman claimed that it was just part of his greeting, and was given a verbal warning. Six years later, an IT worker allegedly found porn on his computer, but their supervisor allegedly “dismissed” the complaint.
“Freeman’s work computer was often reimaged—all software was removed and reinstalled—up to twice each year because its operating system had become plagued with viruses and other malicious software with a suspicious frequency,” the IG report reads.
In 2013, an affirmative action officer filed a formal complaint against Freeman on behalf of four employees he had allegedly harassed and inappropriately touched. Freeman was ordered to undergo harassment training.
Two years later, the news director at a Rochester newspaper wrote a letter to Freeman after one of his reporters told him that Freeman had harassed her during a phone call. Nothing came of it.
From today’s Inspector General report (right):
— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) November 14, 2019
In June of this year, the Rochester reporter came forward to the IG to with allegations that Freeman made inappropriate remarks to her at a diner, kissed her without her consent, and groped her buttocks. “Freeman bragged about his family, salary, and work stature, commenting that he is his own boss and there is ‘no one above him,'” the report reads.
The IG then quotes from the reporter’s testimony:
[I]n hindsight, it was like the perfect setup . . . it was perfect. You set up this power move, you answer the questions she actually wants so she can’t say that she came here for no reason, and then you like kind of go for the kill and see what you can get away with. And it was just too organized, and then the walk, I just can’t stop thinking about the walk around. It was just too organized for me to believe that he hasn’t successfully done this in the past because like, you’re not just going to wake up at 72 [years old] and just be like, ‘Let me assault . . . this journalist that’s been at the job for two months,’ casually.. . I don’t think that happens.
After filing a complaint with the local police, law enforcement listened in on a conversation between Freeman and the reporter, during which Freeman never denied her allegations, according to the IG’s office.
“I was showing you my car and you were going to yours; I think. Well, I apologize and as I said, I’m, I’m, it’s five o’clock on a Friday and I’m heading home, if you don’t mind. All right, good luck to you. I apologize,” Freeman allegedly told her.
The IG interviewed 14 people for their report, but at least one other abuse survivor said they declined to be interviewed for it. After Freeman’s firing, reporters came forward with their own stories that placed Freeman’s behavior in a culture of impunity in Albany.
When news broke this morning that FOIL expert Bob Freeman was fired after an investigation found he sexually harassed a female reporter, I wasn’t surprised.
It happened to me too. https://t.co/bdAFtkMcCU
— Laura Nahmias (@nahmias) June 25, 2019
I have been talking w women of a certain age in Albany about whether we were complicit in allowing the sexual harassment culture continue unimpeded. I’m working thru serious guilt on that. I’ll have something to say soon. In the meantime, kudos, @nahmias. https://t.co/lP4yG33BZB
— Liz Benjamin (@CTLizB) June 26, 2019
The report frequently pushes blame onto the media for not outing Freeman, but doesn’t acknowledge why he was so valuable—because agencies, particularly under Cuomo, are routinely obstructive and do not honor FOIL. he wouldn’t have had so much power otherwise. https://t.co/Qjq8UnaOsG
— danielle tcholakian (@danielleiat) November 14, 2019
Freeman, who is married, did not return our calls or emails.
The IG, Letizia Tagliafierro, recommended that the state strengthen and clarify its processes for reporting abuse in the workplace, and for the state IT department to “promulgate policy addressing how its staff should handle and report the discovery of suspicious activity or inappropriate files on State computers and train its help desk staff and supervisors on the same.” Tagliafierro also referred her findings to law enforcement agencies. Freeman does not currently face any criminal charges.
“The reporter and all the women who have come forward should be commended, as well as the Inspector General for her thorough investigation and Secretary of State Rosado, who when presented with this evidence, fired him immediately,” Cuomo‘s press secretary, Caitlin Girouard, wrote in an email. “We are proud to have signed some of the strongest sexual harassment laws in the country – and make no mistake, they are enforced to the fullest extent of the law.”
Freeman’s immense power dynamic with journalists arose in large part because the government entities they cover consistently fail to abide by the state’s Freedom of Information Law (New York gets low marks when it comes to government transparency). John Kaehny, of the good government group Reinvent Albany, said Freeman’s firing is a chance for a fresh start.
Records requests from the public about themselves could also be “highly automated” and don’t have to involve the costly, time-consuming process of lawyers digging through records and determining what to redact, Kaehny said.
“It’s like looking at FOIL as a customer service process rather than case law,” Kaehny explained. “Freeman had tremendous expertise with the case law. What he was not was somebody who worked on customer service.”
Kaehny notes that the vast majority of FOIL requests come not from journalists, but from members of the public seeking information on themselves.
“That office [COOG] is really crucial, they are the public’s resource on these issues,” Kaehny said. “Open government laws are under tremendous pressure in New York right now. As the media has documented repeatedly, there is widespread noncompliance bordering on disdain. The system could be described as broken.”
Since COOG is part of the executive branch, the simplest thing the governor could do is increase the funding for it. When Freeman was still director, COOG had three employees. Now they are down to two. The governor hasn’t yet chosen Freeman’s successor.
Asked if the governor plans on addressing these glaring deficiencies, Girouard, Cuomo‘s spokesperson, replied, “Snark is fun, facts are better. Bob Freeman had the job and the same role since 1976—covering six different administrations.”