(Bloomberg) -- The American Federation of Government Employees was founded to “build a better workplace.” The union failed to do that at its own shop under its president, J. David Cox, according to current and former staff and members. Now they're questioning whether an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against Cox will dig deep enough into what they describe as a hostile environment.

People in positions of power at AFGE have failed for years to deal with complaints about inappropriate behavior, bullying or bias, leaving workers and union members frustrated and anxious, dozens of current and former staff and members say. The alleged misconduct by Cox was just the highest-profile example of the yawning gap between the organization's public persona as a champion of worker rights and the way it treated its own people, says Caniesha Washington, an AFGE employee for 12 years before she left in September.

The disconnect, she says, "was an internal joke."

The union, which represents 700,000 federal and Washington, D.C., government workers, has said that it takes the harassment claims against Cox “very seriously.” It hired a team led by Jenny Yang, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair, to conduct the investigation. Its duties will include “a broader evaluation of culture and climate, and the organization’s policies and practices, to ensure a fair and inclusive working environment,” Yang told AFGE employees in an email reviewed by Bloomberg News. 

“At the conclusion of that investigation, AFGE will take appropriate action based on recommendations from the investigator,” the union wrote in a statement to Bloomberg. “Until that time, it would be inappropriate for AFGE to comment further.”

“It made people sick.”

Cox took a leave of absence last month after Bloomberg contacted him about harassment allegations, including that he mocked a vice president’s breasts in public and licked an underling’s ear. Now three additional people who worked for Cox say he pressured them to arrange prostitutes for him, and a current employee says Cox suggested they watch porn together in his hotel room. Cox was re-elected president in 2018 and has led the union since 2012. 

He has denied the allegations, according to the union. “I am truly sorry if I ever made anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or actions,” Cox wrote last month in his own statement, saying he trusts the investigation to “sort the fact from fiction.” He did not respond to further inquiries on the latest claims. 

Current and former employees say problems went far beyond Cox. “We want to make sure that AFGE doesn’t lose sight of their role in keeping this from happening in the future,” says Washington, who was a leader at an AFGE staff union. “Dismantling the culture of fear and intimidation is part of recovering from this. It can’t be business as usual.” 

In 2014, a colleague told Washington that someone had written the word “whore” by the colleague’s name between sessions at a training for union members. When the two told AFGE general counsel David Borer and chief of staff Brian DeWyngaert, she says their response amounted to a “pat on the head.”

Borer and DeWyngaert did not respond to inquiries.

It was well known that the general counsel’s office didn’t address workplace harassment, says Suzanne Sapp-Snurpus, who worked at AFGE for two years until leaving in 2018. When a coworker repeatedly made passes at her, she says, she decided against reporting him, in part, for that reason.

In 2015, Amber Westbrook, an AFGE member at the time, says that Rosendo Rocha, the president of her local chapter, told her that sex was the way for women to get ahead at the union and demanded to have adjoining hotel rooms at a conference. When she told the general counsel’s office, they asked her follow-up questions, but “took no action and provided no explanation,” she says. “I contacted and filed complaints with the appropriate officials that were supposed to have my back.”

Instead, Dorothy James, a national vice president, told Westbrook, in an email reviewed by Bloomberg, she was ineligible for a union position because she didn’t “have a positive working relationship with the Local President.” James does not recall the exchange, she says. Two years later, Westbrook ousted Rocha by beating him in the local’s election for president.

Asked about the allegations, Rocha said that Westbrook had “taken great measures to falsely accuse me of acts that I never committed” and referred further questions to AFGE's general counsel.

“It made people sick.”

Complaints against Cox went unaddressed, too. Rocky Kabir, Cox’s former secretary, says he reported his boss’s inappropriate conduct more than once. During their year and a half working together, Kabir alleges that Cox asked him to shower with him, told him to be more open to sex with men, and repeatedly touched his face.

Kabir says he talked to AFGE’s public policy director Jacque Simon about Cox at the time. Simon dismissed Cox’s behavior as a result of the president not having enough sex, Kabir says. She then promised Kabir would get his “freedom” after the end of Cox’s re-election campaign, which Kabir says he was working on under pressure from Cox. Simon declined to comment.

Later, after resigning, Kabir reached out to Jeremy Lannan, AFGE’s recently elected national vice president for women and fair practices. This summer, Lannan shared Kabir’s experiences with AFGE’s general counsel office, according to current and former employees with knowledge of the situation. Within weeks, the 68-year-old Cox emailed Lannan and other officials, saying Lannan should be investigated for age discrimination, they say. Lannan declined to comment because the allegations are under investigation.

The seeming lack of recourse for employee complaints hurt morale, making people stressed and anxious and causing a number to quit. “People are still leaving, because things aren’t being addressed,” says Washington. “It made people sick.”

Those who’ve worked at the union suspect that loyalty to Cox and his allies drove leaders’ decisions or inaction, and fear that criticisms of Cox are already being framed as political. In Cox’s October response, he said he “cannot abide lies and scurrilous, politically-motivated attacks.”

Some employees say that after Cox’s misconduct allegations became public, they were told by managers not to discuss them on social media, a potential violation of labor law.  “Staff was simply reminded to avoid engaging in politics around these allegations,” the union said. Employees later got an email saying they were “free to communicate with each other.”

In Yang’s message, the former EEOC chair said, “AFGE has committed to redoubling its efforts to ensure individuals throughout the organization feel comfortable speaking up about any issues.” Her team will investigate any alleged retaliation it learns about. 

John Gage, who preceded Cox, calls the controversy a “black mark” for the union. “I think everybody would agree that we have to get by this quickly, and the quickest way is for Cox to resign,” he says. “I certainly hope he would put the good of the union into his thinking.”

In a letter to the union’s executive council, five former high-ranking AFGE officers, including Gage, asked that the investigation into Cox address the “action, or lack of action, on behalf of officers or staff who may have enabled or covered up this alleged corrupt culture within our union.”

To contact the author of this story: Josh Eidelson in Palo Alto at jeidelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Greenfield at rgreenfield@bloomberg.net, Anne Reifenberg

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