Earlier this year, Tara Reade says she contacted one of the leading organizations that represents #MeToo survivors and helps them tell their stories. She approached the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund in confidence, hoping for support against former Vice President Joe Biden, who she claims sexually assaulted her in the nation’s capital in 1993 when she worked as one of his Senate staffers.
Reade ultimately did not not receive all the help she sought–an experience which has left her sorely disappointed in the advocacy groups that sprung up to explicitly help people like herself in the aftermath of the 2017 Harvey Weinstein rape scandal.
“What I don’t understand is the #MeToo movement,” she said, “who has been silent.”
Speaking with Law&Crime, Reade said she felt specifically led on by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. She described a terminal search for lawyers whose names were provided to her by the group but who declined to represent her for various reasons–including some lawyers who said they were fearful of Biden and others who outright said they were Biden supporters. Reade described an organization that in the end, she believes, manufactured an excuse not to fully support her.
As more details have come to light, however, Reade’s feelings about her fruitless work with the group have drastically shifted. She now believes the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund effectively functioned as a catch-and-kill operation for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
At the center of the controversy and Reade’s concerns is the crisis management firm SKDKnickerbocker, whose managing director, Anita Dunn, reportedly provided Weinstein with free strategy and “damage control.” Dunn is currently the “decision-making authority” behind Biden’s campaign, according to the New York Times. SKDKnickerbocker oversees the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund’s public relations efforts and assists with providing survivors access to other public relations outfits in their network.
The following timeline illustrates the fraught situation:
March 2019: Former Nevada state senator Lucy Flores accuses Biden of inappropriate touching. Seven additional women–including Reade–come forward to allege similar incidents.
June, September, December 2019: The Biden campaign makes payments totaling $75,568.62 to SKD Knickerbocker. (Link to FEC data.)
January 2020 (mid-month): Reade approaches Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. (Link to Newsweek article.)
January 2020 (throughout): The Biden campaign makes payments totaling $548,480.27 to SKD Knickerbocker. (Link to FEC data.)
February 2020 (early): Dunn is elevated to “decision-making authority” in the Biden campaign. (Link to New York Times article.)
February 2020 (throughout): Reade says she continues conversations and attorney searches with Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
February 2020 (late): The Biden campaign makes one payment totaling $257,691.89 to SKD Knickerbocker. (Link to FEC data.)
March 2020 (mid-month): Reade speaks with The Intercept’s Ryan Grim resulting in story about Time’s Up’s decision not to proceed with the case. (Link to The Intercept article.)
March 2020 (late): Reade learns about Dunn’s work as SKD Knickerbocker’s managing director and relationship with TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund via Grim’s article. (Link to Newsweek article.)
This tangled web of arguably conflicting interests was all news to Reade, who says she was “stunned” to learn about the #MeToo group’s connections to SKDKnickerbocker and Biden’s campaign.
“The timeline looks very draconian to me,” she said in an interview. “From my perspective: the payments look like a way to silence me further from getting my story heard.”
“On the face of it, it makes me have a lot of questions for Time’s Up and Joe Biden’s campaign,” she said.
“I actually cried a little because I felt really betrayed,” Reade continued. “They never told me that their public relations was run by Anita Dunn. I found out in real-time reading Ryan’s article. I gave them so much personal information and they say they didn’t give it to Biden. But come on. They said they had firewalls or something.”
An article in Newsweek published Friday contained a denial from the National Woman’s Law Center (NWLC), the parent organization of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, via their Vice President of Communications Uma M. Iyer.
“Part of The Intercept article also mentions the Fund’s connection to SKDKnickerbocker,” Iyer said in a substantially similar statement provided to Law&Crime. “To be clear, there are recusal protocols and firewalls built into the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund’s processes that prevent conflicts of interest of any kind, both perceived and real. In this case, SKDK played no role in our decision and was never even made aware that Ms. Reade had reached out to us until The Intercept reached out to SKDK for comment.”
In statement to Law&Crime, an SKDKnickerbocker spokesperson denied that the public affairs firm had any knowledge that Reade asked Time’s Up for assistance until a reporter asked about it.
“Our firm is proud of the work we do to support survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment with the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and others in the legal community. We’ve given voice to countless survivors across the country and we are honored to be their partner,” the spokesperson said. “The National Women’s Law Center and the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund have made it clear that SKDK was not involved in any conversations with them about Tara Reade’s situation. In fact, SKDK didn’t even know that Ms. Reade had asked for support from the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund until a reporter asked us about her.”
The spokesperson said that Reade’s case is “for others to litigate.”
“As a company, we take potential conflicts of interest very seriously,” the statement continued. “In full transparency, this is one of the times when it is best to stay away from a particular case due to a conflict of interest with our political work. The facts of Ms. Reade’s case are for others to litigate and we respect that process.”
Reade thinks it doesn’t quite add up. She cited the prior justification made by Time’s Up for not pursuing the case against Biden. Namely, that he was a candidate running for federal office and because of that, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund claims, the group’s nonprofit status would have been jeopardized if they assisted her.
“As a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the National Women’s Law Center is restricted in how it can spend its funds, including restrictions that pertain to candidates running for election,” NWLC spokesperson Maria Patrick said in the initial Intercept article.
Reade refuted that:
I don’t believe that because they were so–really into doing the story and then all of sudden they came back and the director came back said, “No.” And they had two phone meetings with me. And I pushed back a little and said, “So if he was a Republican, would you guys be helping me?” And they were like, “No.” Because at first they said: “If he drops out, then we can re-look at this.” But then they were like, “No…even if he dropped out, it didn’t matter.”
“They were like, ‘We can’t represent you, even if he dropped out at this point.’ They just felt that it was too–it would put their nonprofit at risk. And I think it’s because of the money connection,” Reade continued. “They didn’t tell me that explicitly. But now I understand why, even if he dropped out, they felt they couldn’t help me.”
Iyer pushed back against that categorization:
While we were engaged with her, we informed Ms. Reade that our 501(c)(3) precluded us from funding [public relations] and associated legal fees for her. That status mandates a strict and absolute prohibition on participating in electioneering or political campaign activity, and in this situation, we were dealing with the involvement of a candidate and close proximity to primary elections. Ms. Reade said she understood our position–and publicly confirmed this in an interview with Rising on March 26. Ms. Reade continued to engage with us in trying to find attorneys who might provide her assistance not contingent on our funding, until our conversation with her on March 2 after which we have not heard from her. We maintained then–as we do now–that we are willing to continue to try to find Ms. Reade legal assistance; we simply cannot fund any fees associated with that activity.
“This is the part they’re parsing out,” Reade responded. “They said they could help me with referrals, but they said they could not help me with funding. They never mentioned the relationship with SKD Knickerbocker. Had I known that, I would not have shared.”
“I feel like my trust was violated,” she said–insisting that she had no interest in returning to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund all things considered. “The attorneys would get the whole story and they would just tell me ‘No.’ So, now they have the information and I still don’t have representation.”
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has a multi-tiered process of engagement with sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors. After initial intake interviews, the relevant parties decide whether or not to move forward in one of three ways relevant here–a fourth service provided by the group is not germane to Reade’s case.
The group: (1) connects survivors with attorneys; (2) funds select legal cases; and (3) provides public relations help to survivors if they have legal representation. Each service is separate but some are directly contingent upon one another; the public relations work is not done unless a survivor has legal representation–which could mean an affiliated lawyer or not. Reade sought all three of those services but, in the end, Time’s Up was only able to provide the first service and adamantly refused the second, they say, due to electioneering concerns.
Iyer said her organization did provide Reade some assistance [asterisks indicate data points as they appeared on March 1, 2020]:
In Ms. Reade’s situation, we can confirm that she reached out to us towards the end of January, we followed up with her, and connected her to attorneys within the 10 days that we usually take for this work. As we indicated to Mr. Grim before he ran his piece, the assertion that we did not provide Ms. Reade with any assistance is false. We helped Ms. Reade as much as we could, within the guardrails that necessarily shape our work. We provided her with the information to connect to attorneys and other resources, just as we have provided such resources to the over 4,300* individuals who have reached out to us seeking assistance in addressing workplace sexual harassment. Attorneys in our network agree to give survivors being referred by [the Fund] a first consultation for free but we cannot require attorneys to take a specific case. Unlike connecting people to attorneys, funding for a case is not a given and we are clear about that in initial communications. Of the 345* applications for funding assistance that we’ve received, we have agreed to fund 209*.
“It was really, really disheartening,” Reade said, insisting she was strung along. She now wishes the group hadn’t taken up so much of her time. In fact, in light of the Dunn connection, Reade says she shouldn’t have spent any time with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund at all.
Reade wants to know how all of this was not seen as a conflict of interest:
How did they not see that as a conflict of interest? My question is: how do donors feel? How do they feel? They shouldn’t have accepted me in the first place. They should have said: “Sorry, we’re connected to SKD Knickerbocker, who is basically Anita Dunn, who was recently paid $75,000 by your former employer who assaulted you. We’ve got to send you somewhere else.” Those bigger payments came and her elevation came after my story was with them. How does that look?”
“Are they set up to protect powerful men or to help women?” she asked.
Reade is currently searching for legal aid and says she is willing to repeat her allegations under oath or by way of a deposition–and is weighing other legal options, as well.
Still, she says she’s determined to advocate for herself and tell her story.
“I stand in truth,” Reade said. “It happened. I can’t help who he is as far is in the public eye. In that hallway, he was a man assaulting a woman.”
Last week, Biden’s campaign denied the sexual assault allegation in a statement.
“Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director told Fox News. “We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.”
[image via YouTube/the Hill screengrab, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images]
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