Strategy

Turmoil Was Brewing at Time’s Up Long Before Cuomo

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In the small, underfunded world of women’s charities, Time’s Up was an outlier. Its founders included Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey; Ms. Tchen, its leader since 2019, had been Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. The organization’s connections, and $24 million GoFundMe campaign, were its selling point. But some of the group’s power players — including Roberta Kaplan, who stepped down this month as chairwoman in the Cuomo fallout — became entangled in questions about conflicts of interest.

Ms. Kaplan, a lawyer whose firm represents a top Cuomo aide accused of trying to discredit an alleged victim, was more involved in the administration’s response than previously reported, according to her and others. She provided names of potential defense lawyers for the governor, discussed with an aide what a key Time’s Up statement would say and shared it with his office before it became public.

The group underestimated “how difficult it would be to work with politicians and corporations without coming up against something that’s going to stain you,” Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo and a member of Time’s Up’s extended board, said in an interview.

Time’s Up helped deliver legislative victories in New York, strengthening anti-harassment provisions and lengthening the statute of limitations for rape; prodded Hollywood to hire more female directors and executives; and urged corporations like McDonald’s to improve their policies. Its most significant achievement may be the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a separate arm that connects people with workplace misconduct claims, especially low-income women, to lawyers and media strategists.

Jay Ellwanger, a Texas lawyer who has represented multiple women through the fund, said it allowed “a woman who doesn’t have the quote-unquote power and connections” to feel that “she can fight for herself and for others.” Since 2018, it has referred over 4,800 people to lawyers and funded 256 cases.

But at the main organization, current and former staff members said in interviews, priorities seemed to shift quickly. As the effort to combat harassment expanded to equal pay initiatives and other targets, some believed that Time’s Up lacked a clear road map to its policy goals. And, they said, staff members’ focus was often scattered as they were drawn into ancillary issues, the promotion of board members’ pet projects or public relations campaigns on unrelated topics.

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