Exclusive: Sexual Harassment at Family Research Council
The Family Research Council, arguably the premiere Christian Right organization in Washington, has been quietly sued by a woman who was fired after she complained about repeated sexual harassment by her supervisor.
The lawsuit, filed last year without any public notice in U.S. District Court in Washington by Moira Gaul, charges the Family Research Council with illegal retaliation under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Gaul was fired just months after she filed a gender discrimination complaint against the Family Research Council with the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission because of the sexual harassment
The Family Research Council claims Gaul was fired for budgetary reasons and poor performance, including the horrific offense of having once turned in a time slip late. When was the last time you heard about someone fired for that?
Depositions for the case and mediation were held this summer. Both sides have moved for summary judgment. The latest filings for the case are due on December 14.
Gaul had a stellar career at the Family Research Council and amassed a perfect employment record until her run-in with her supervisor, a prominent figure in the anti-abortion movement.
She was hired in March 2005 as an abstinence coordinator and later promoted to Director of Women’s and Reproductive Health, where she focused on abstinence education but was also quoted widely in the media on the controversy over the HPV vaccination for young girls and abortion.
According to Gaul, the harassment started in February 2007. With the behavior ongoing, she finally filed a gender discrimination complaint--you can’t file for sexual harassment--with the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission in January 2009.
In that complaint Gaul says that the Family Research Council’s Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics “pressured me to attend parties” sent mails addressed “hi cutie” and “referred to the use of birth control pills by young women as ‘whoring around.’” In general, “his attitude towards me and other women was rude, belittling and at times angry.”
According to multiple news accounts, the Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics during the time that the sexual harassment was alleged to take place was William Saunders, a prominent anti-abortion lawyer. Saunders goes by "Bill" and court papers filed by the Family Research Council refer to Gaul's supervisor as "Bill S."
According to the lawsuit, the Family Research Council quickly retaliated against Gaul following her complaint. In January 2009, Gaul who had a number of health problems that the Family Research Council had gone out of its way to accommodate was forced to go on short term disability leave.
“The Family Research Council’s Vice President of Administration assured her that her health insurance would continue through her short-term disability leave.” But following her complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights “FRC’s Vice President of Administration informed Gaul that the Family Research Council was retroactively canceling her health insurance for the period she was on short term disability.”
When she returned to the work and the Family Research Council failed to reinstate her health insurance Gaul, desperate for coverage, “contacted various members of management and Human Resources for help.” In response, a top FRC official “threatened to issue another reprimand for insubordination if she attempted to raise the issue of her health insurance again.”
In May, the FRC said she would longer be allowed to report to work a little late to accommodate her health issues, which include Fibromyalgia, a disease which causes pain in the muscles.
Although she had received two excellent reviews and no reprimands at FRC before filing her complaint she was hit with three reprimands afterwards. One concerned turning in a time sheet late; the second missing a radio interview due a miscommunication and a third for insubordination.
Her sexual harassment complaint was settled on July 31, 2009 but the hostility continued, the lawsuit says.
Finally, on October 23, 2009, the Family Research Council terminated Gaul’s employment because of what it said was a “reduction in federal funding to the abstinence movement” and the need for a person in the position “with a background in a variety of ‘life issue’ areas beyond abstinence, which [FRC] claimed that Ms. Gaul did not have “
The lawsuit says both these reasons are pretexts for retaliation. There was funding available and Gaul had experience in many areas beyond abstinence. “Federal funding for abstinence education continued after Ms. Gaul was terminated, and, three months after her termination, the FRC created a new position with duties substantially similar to those previously performed by Ms. Gaul.”
In its motion for summary judgment the FRC says Gaul has no right to claim retaliation based on the complaint because it was settled and therefore not legally actionable. “Plaintiff can not show that her position was eliminated in response to any protected activity she engaged in or that the Defendant exhibited unlawful or otherwise prohibited behavior.”
It’s very difficult to win a lawsuit for illegal retaliation. Gaul has lots of circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun in terms of an email that spells out retaliatory intent. She also filed a complaint for illegal retaliation with the DC Office of Human Rights but they dismissed it.
But it’s clear that the FRC is desperate to cover up the sexual harassment by her supervisor and the settlement. That’s not something which an organization that fancies itself morally superior to most Americans should be allowed to pull off.
Or any organization. Or public figure. Let’s remember that Herman Cain’s presidential campaign first started to implode when he tried to cover-up his settlement of sexual harassment cases while head of the National Restaurant Association.
But the FRC has convinced the judge in the case to forbid Gaul’s lawyers from asking questions about the sexual harassment settlement. They also had the settlement itself sealed.
Shannon Stokes, one of the lawyers at the powerhouse law firm of Kirkland and Ellis representing Gaul, declined comment.
Gaul, 42, has sought work with numerous conservative organizations since her dismissal, but remains unemployed despite an impressive resume. Is she being blacklisted?
William J. Hickey, the lawyer for the Family Research Council, did not respond to a request for comment.
William Saunders who had been at Family Research Council for 10 years decamped to Americans United for Life not long after Gaul filed her sexual harassment complaint about him. Did that organization know about the charges and settlement when they hired him?
Yuval Levin, a board member of Americans United for Life, told me that he was not aware of the sexual harassment charges against Saunders. He said he could not comment further without seeing the complaint. When I started to read it to him he hung up on me.
Saunders did not respond to repeated emails.
For the Huffington Post follow-up to this story go here.
Evan Gahr has written for almost every major conservative publication. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanGahr