(Bloomberg) -- Sexual assaults, lurid propositions and a sex tape pack the latest filings in a class-action lawsuit against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. But it’s a boss’s comment about his assistant’s engagement ring two decades ago and a woman who complained an executive checked her out that have set off an especially bitter dispute in the case.
The reason: The men involved are two of the firm’s most prominent figures.
It’s a fight within a fight: a battle over naming names in the industry’s biggest lawsuit over equality. What raises the stakes isn’t the alleged behavior so much as who they are -- and whether it supports an argument by women who’ve worked at Goldman that the firm protects and promotes men who engage in misconduct.
The complaints, dating back to 2003, aren’t as ugly as the ones that have drawn headlines since the filings landed in court two weeks ago. But they touch on a long-running debate over what happens when people in finance complain about rainmakers and other powerful executives, and the industry’s strong preference for handling it in secret.
That system is part of what plaintiffs were targeting when they filed a 51-page brief in 2014 to set the scope of the lawsuit, now scheduled for trial next year. For years, the document remained heavily redacted, until a new clash erupted in the past few months. The revised version filed on Sept. 22 revealed the allegations, but left out the names of men involved, including two partners the plaintiffs unsuccessfully tried to make public.
They are, according to people with direct knowledge of Goldman’s internal files, Tucker York, who helps run Goldman’s $7.5 billion consumer and wealth business, and Gary Cohn, who served for a decade as the firm’s president before leaving for the Trump administration.
Goldman argued against naming them, telling the court in June that doing so would violate their privacy and unnecessarily harm their reputations. The passage now stands out visually in the main filing, with broad black lines replacing the two names with a label -- “participating managing director,” for partner -- that doesn’t reflect the full scale of the clout they amassed at Goldman.
“It’s interesting to me that they are fighting so hard to keep these names quiet,” said Gretchen Carlson, the former news anchor and #MeToo leader who urged Goldman to stop forcing employees into arbitration. Lawsuits like these, she said, will include claims that range from small to egregious.
“There’s different accountability levels,” she added. “What we’ve deemed as throwaway comments matter.”
A company spokeswoman said it’s unfair to name the executives and that the firm doesn’t allow bad behavior.
“The court specifically rejected the plaintiffs’ repeated attempt to publicly identify executives of Goldman Sachs, agreeing that there was little public interest in unsworn hearsay complaints from decades ago and that it would be unfair and prejudicial to those individuals to identify them,” the spokeswoman, Andrea Williams, said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that Bloomberg failed to respect the reasoning of the court.”
York’s promotions over the years have placed him on Goldman’s top decision-making body. Now 62, he is among the firm’s longest-serving partners.
A passage in the main filing with his name blacked out alleges the executive told his administrative assistant she would end up a “trophy wife.” When he later expressed dissatisfaction with her work, she complained about his remarks, writing out her recollections in a March 2003 letter to him included as an exhibit. It quotes him reacting to her engagement by saying, “That ring says you don’t need this job.”
Once she raised the matter with human resources, they told her she should be flattered, her lawyer wrote soon after. The assistant was told she needed to find a new boss within the firm.
“York is an extraordinary and respected leader at Goldman Sachs with a 36-year track record of demonstrated commitment to the advancement of women at the firm,” the bank’s spokeswoman said. The allegation “does not accurately reflect what happened almost 20 years ago and is an incomplete portrayal, as are all the selective disclosures chosen by the plaintiffs.”
Cohn, 62, is also described in the filing with his name blacked out, according to one of the people. Around the time Cohn was promoted to co-president in mid-2006, the filing shows that an employee accused the executive of “‘checking her out’ up and down” and said he was known to be “inappropriate toward young women.” Notes attached as an exhibit don’t say what was inappropriate and show the employee declined to give human resources the names of other women because the department couldn’t guarantee confidentiality.
Cohn left for Donald Trump’s White House after the 2016 election. A spokeswoman for Cohn declined to comment.
The filings underscore how difficult it still can be to expose allegations of troubling behavior on Wall Street.
Contracts at many financial firms force workers to bring most complaints individually through closed-door arbitration. Employees who reach settlements are routinely required to sign confidentiality agreements. Critics of those practices, including lawmakers in Washington, say it hides problems and allows them to continue. But attempts to press cases publicly in court can spiral into arduous sagas.
Industry tell-alls remain rare. In August, former Goldman managing director Jamie Fiore Higgins published a memoir, “Bully Market,” detailing incidents of assault, harassment and discrimination that she said she faced during her 17 years at the firm before leaving in 2016. The book makes her one of the highest-ranking employees of the bank to air her experiences there. Goldman has said it strongly disagrees with her characterization of its culture and declined to respond to anonymized allegations.
The lawsuit has been brewing for decades.
Cristina Chen-Oster, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who joined Goldman in 1997 and sold convertible bonds, filed a discrimination complaint in July 2005 with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was a managing director at Deutsche Bank AG by the time she was allowed to take Goldman to court in 2010. It took another eight years for a court to let her and other women represent more than 1,400 current and former employees, though Goldman fought to send many to arbitration. The case will head to trial in June, almost two decades after she first complained.
Goldman’s senior ranks are stacked with men. Among a dozen executives overseeing Goldman’s revenue-generating divisions and leadership, one is a woman -- the same figure as a decade ago. That’s similar to much of the industry, where only one giant US bank, Citigroup Inc., is led by a woman.
(Updates with comment from Carlson in eighth paragraph.)
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