P., a 32-year-old Guatemalan immigrant living in Texas, was cleaning equipment and packing tomatoes and cucumbers at a vegetable processing plant during the night shift in 2018 when her boss began making comments about her appearance. Over a period of nine months, he touched her legs and breasts, told her he thought of her when he had sex with his wife and showed her intimate photos on his phone, P. says. When P. complained to human resources, she says she was told her assailant would be given the opportunity to defend himself. “I was afraid he was going to do something to me,” says P., who has asked that her name and former employer’s name not be used in this story because she is in the midst of suing for sexual harassment and retaliation. (Her employer admits that it investigated P.’s report of sexual harassment and eventually terminated her supervisor; the employer denies that it allowed sexual harassment to continue and that P. was subject to retaliation.)
P.’s case is being financed by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Upon finding her attorney through a nonprofit, P. says, “I felt safer hearing my rights and hearing that nobody is allowed to hurt other people.” Though P. was aware her attorney would be applying for aid from Time’s Up, the organization is not something she knows much about. P.’s life in Texas feels millions of miles away from those of the Hollywood power players who came together to create Time’s Up in 2018 and fund its signature initiative, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, but in many ways, she is exactly the kind of woman they set out to help. Now the stability of Time’s Up and that pipeline of funding are threatened by the recent revelation of Time’s Up’s cozy relationship with former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a connection that first came to light when New York Attorney General Letitia James published a report that found that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, including former aide Lindsey Boylan, and named Time’s Up executives as among those who advised the governor’s office on a draft of an op-ed seeking to discredit Boylan’s claims.
That report led to the resignations of Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen and chairwoman Roberta Kaplan, both co-founders of the Legal Defense Fund. Tchen said in a statement that she was aware her position had become “a painful and divisive focal point” and Kaplan said she had concluded “that an active litigation practice is no longer compatible with serving on the board.”
Though it is funded by Time’s Up, the Legal Defense Fund is housed and administered by a separate, 50-year-old nonprofit, the National Women’s Law Center. Attorneys and survivors are frustrated that the fund is now embroiled in the controversies of its sister organization and raising questions about conflicts of interest that may affect their cases.
“Time’s Up and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund are completely separate entities with different leadership and staff, and Time’s Up has no decision-making authority with the fund,” says Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Regarding the appearance of conflict of interest, Tejani says, “We have always sought and been open to feedback and are currently reviewing and evaluating our processes.”
While P.’s case may embody the Legal Defense Fund’s earliest vision, survivors have accused the organization of making missteps when its sister organization is looking to take on the very Hollywood institutions that have contributed to its coffers. The result is a perception of tangled loyalties. Lauren Weingarten’s case became one such example.
In December 2018, the below-the-line veteran participated in her first of several intake sessions with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Weingarten, who had most recently worked as an assistant on a short-lived CBS All Access series, began to share her experience about what had transpired on the show’s set in May and June of that year.
According to a civil complaint filed in July 2020 naming CBS, Weingarten was sexually harassed and bullied by crewmembers — which she reported to several producers, all of whom failed to take her complaints to human resources at CBS. The suit also stated that an actor on the production “raped and sodomized Ms. Weingarten.” In a separate declaration, Weingarten said the actor did not attend any CBS-sponsored anti-harassment training before he began working on the series. CBS declined to comment.
On Aug. 3, 2018, Weingarten began receiving services at the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape center. (THR spoke with a friend of Weingarten’s who declined to be publicly identified because he works in the industry. He says she called him the morning after the incident involving the actor and detailed the assault.) She also eventually reported the alleged assault to the Pittsburgh Police Department, which says it “thoroughly investigated” the case, and “the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office determined that there was not enough to proceed with prosecution, and the accused was not charged.” Says Weingarten: “If it wasn’t so heartbreaking it would be laughable to hear my case described as thoroughly investigated. In fact, I was told several times that my case was an exception and that it had to be handled differently because my perpetrator was in the public eye.” An attorney for the actor declined to comment.
Ahead of her initial intake with Time’s Up, Weingarten felt elated to be working with the organization, which had commandeered the Golden Globes ceremony that year with its powerful message that sexual misdeeds no longer would be tolerated in Hollywood in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. (It quickly raised $24 million.) But after receiving a series of lawyer referrals from the Legal Defense Fund over the ensuing months, Weingarten became discouraged. Several of the lawyers were located in the wrong state. One specialized in divorce, while another revealed he had a conflict of interest, something that Weingarten believes the Legal Defense Fund was supposed to weed out in the referral process. A spokesperson for the Legal Defense Fund says in a statement, “When a survivor fills in a request-for-assistance form, we send them the names of three attorneys. When the person reaches out to the attorneys, it is at that point that they can disclose and discuss any conflicts. This can only happen with a one-on-one conversation with a survivor. It is impossible for us to pre-screen — we do not have access to an attorney’s or a firm’s full roster of clients.”
Says Weingarten, “It just made me feel unheard and unsupported and just frustrated because this was supposed to be one of the good resources.”
Without Time’s Up aid, the bulk of the cases taken up by the Legal Defense Fund may have withered.
“Because of Time’s Up, cases were brought [to court] that otherwise could not have been brought. There’s no question,” says litigator Jill Basinger, who represents Boylan. “That being said, we don’t know how many other Cuomo-esque shenanigans occurred. This just happened to have been made public because the attorney general did such a thorough investigation.”
In the three years since its founding, the Legal Defense Fund has spent $17 million, of which $15.8 million has been on cases for workers and $1.2 million for overhead, according to audited financial statements filed by the National Women’s Law Center, which has an “A” rating from the philanthropy watchdog group Charity Watch.
Shana Khader, an attorney at the Equal Justice Center in Dallas, has sought the organization’s funding on six cases. “The Time’s Up funding has increased the number of cases we’re able to take on behalf of low-income workers,” she says. Asked about the recent controversy over Time’s Up’s relationship with Cuomo, Khader says, “I don’t want to minimize those concerns, but they feel very far away from the work we’re doing representing low-wage workers in the heart of Texas.”
Natalie Harris, a Chicago business attorney who has handled multiple defamation cases for women through Time’s Up, feels the general public does not understand the distinction between Time’s Up the advocacy organization and the Legal Defense Fund. “I have no connection to the politics of Time’s Up,” says Harris. “Time’s Up is an organization having growing pains that need to be addressed. My concern is that the coverage focusing on the leadership or the celebrities overshadows the important work that the law center does.”
On Aug. 27, the day after Tchen’s resignation, the National Women’s Law Center announced that it no longer would be using SKDKnickerbocker — a powerhouse PR firm whose vice chairman Hilary Rosen is a co-founder of the Legal Defense Fund and recently stepped down from the Time’s Up Foundation board along with Rhimes, Longoria and McGrath — to coordinate publicity on its cases. On behalf of the Legal Defense Fund, SKDK has provided so-called “storytelling” guidance, supplying publicity advice to survivors. But SKDK also has powerful clients, both corporate and individuals accused of sexual misconduct, such as then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“There are necessary guardrails that must be in place to ensure that even the perception of conflict does not exist, that survivors feel safe, and their needs are prioritized,” the NWLC said in a statement, indicating that it would be “bringing the administration of the public relations assistance function in-house.”
The Legal Defense Fund has been sensitive to criticism from survivors. In late 2019, after getting feedback that some attorneys in its referral network were brusque and ill-equipped to deal with sexual assault victims, one of Weingarten’s complaints, it added training for trauma sensitivity to its requirements. “We decided to add it because we knew from our own work with people that it was important, and we had heard some feedback either from talking to lawyers or working people seeking help that showed us it would be helpful,” Tejani said. Yet some lawyers in the network say they have not had the training. And while some victims assume that the 600 attorneys in the Time’s Up database have received a kind of Good Housekeeping seal from the organization, the Legal Defense Fund’s vetting is much more bare bones — it confirms that an attorney has insurance, is licensed and in good standing with their state bar association.
When attorneys funded by Time’s Up win a case, they must repay the Legal Defense Fund what they were advanced or 50 percent of what they received in the case, whichever is less. The practice, not unusual for a nonprofit, exists to keep replenishing the coffers for the next group of workers needing assistance, but some survivors who have engaged the fund are surprised to learn of it.
Weingarten isn’t the only recipient of funds who feels the Legal Defense Fund is ill-equipped to tackle the needs of survivors. She was one of many women who recently signed an open letter to the Time’s Up board accusing the group of prioritizing “proximity to power over mission.”
The Cuomo scandal, which prompted women like Weingarten to come forward, follows in the wake of criticism over Time’s Up’s handling of other #MeToo cases, including disgraced hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who had pressured Time’s Up donor Oprah Winfrey to disassociate herself from the documentary On the Record (Winfrey has stated she pulled out because of inconsistencies in the accusers’ claims). The Legal Defense Fund refused to fund Biden accuser Tara Reade despite doing multiple intake sessions with her over months, citing its tax-exempt 501(c)3 status. (The group said its status prevents it from performing actions that could be perceived as taking sides in a federal election, but Ellen Aprill, a tax law professor at Loyola Law School, has said that such a reading of the law may be too strict.)
Attorney Doug Wigdor, who has represented several Weinstein and Fox News accusers, has never taken funding from Time’s Up, but many of his clients have enjoyed the group’s support. That was not the case for his former client Reade.
“I think it was hypocritical, frankly,” says Wigdor of Time’s Up’s decision not to offer assistance to Reade. “There should be consistency, regardless of people’s politics. I’ve had cases against very conservative people like Bill O’Reilly, and I’ve had cases against liberal people. The job should be to represent people who have been victimized, regardless of the perpetrator.” Tejani says Reade’s case is not the only one the organization has had to pass on because it would threaten the groups’ nonprofit status, though she declined to name the other case. Says Uma Iyer, a spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center, “We don’t shy away from things that are hard or have one detail or another, unless — necessarily — there is some sort of legal or regulatory constraint.”
But Basinger maintains that Time’s Up’s missteps have had a chilling effect on the survivor community, whose members already face major hurdles in coming forward.
“Kaplan and Tina were essentially working with the governor’s office against the survivor,” she says of Boylan’s experience. “If Time’s Up is going to do this to you, of course women are terrified to come forward. It’s the most well-known women’s advocacy organization, and it participated in retaliation.”
Despite her initial misgivings, Weingarten continued to work with the Legal Defense Fund and eventually landed with a Philadelphia attorney who had worked with Time’s Up on multiple occasions and who, she says, came highly recommended by the group. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund rejected that characterization, noting, “We make clear whenever we provide attorney contact information that we are not vouching for the attorneys and cannot guarantee a specific result.”
Weingarten says her relationship with her lawyer quickly devolved after she paid him a $5,000 retainer out of her own pocket. She claims he missed the deadline on two key statutes of limitation, a defamation claim against a producer who she says smeared her following her harassment claims and a civil suit against the actor. The attorney denies this: “The statute of limitations on the defamation claim against the producer had expired before Ms. Weingarten retained me to represent her, [and] the scope of my representation of Ms. Weingarten did not include a civil suit against [the actor].” To Weingarten, it “very much felt like he was trying to drag it out.” The attorney says her case “proceeded expeditiously under the circumstances given the impact of the pandemic.”
Weingarten complained to the Legal Defense Fund, and Tejani drafted a supportive letter in the event that Weingarten filed a complaint against her lawyer with the State Bar. It said, “I was on the phone with Ms. Weingarten and [her lawyer] on several occasions. On some of those calls, I heard [her lawyer] yell at Ms. Weingarten and refuse to answer her appropriate questions concerning her case.” Weingarten says she asked Tejani for a new lawyer but was told that she would lose her funding and would have to reapply if a change was made. “It is true that if someone changes attorneys when we have started funding it, we require a new application from the new attorney,” writes a Legal Defense Fund spokesperson. “Our funding agreements are with attorneys, and this process allows us to formally acquire references for the new attorney and review their submitted budget. Even though the individual is not responsible for doing any of this paperwork, we recognize that it can be stressful if someone is trying to change attorneys and do our best to expedite the process.”
Unbeknownst to Weingarten, another red flag loomed. Though she shared the names of all of the parties involved in her case for a conflict check over her various intakes, she says that no one from the Legal Defense Fund ever disclosed that CBS was one of Time’s Up’s strategic partners. The Legal Defense Fund says it did disclose that National Women’s Law Center had received funding from CBS; it did not communicate anything similar about Time’s Up because Time’s Up and the National Women’s Law Center are separate entities. In a call Weingarten had with Time’s Up, she also asked two executives if the group had a relationship with CBS, and she says they insisted that no ties existed. (Time’s Up did not respond to a request for comment.) Weingarten only learned of the relationship when she saw it referenced in the organization’s annual report in May 2021, four months after she settled with CBS.
Weingarten says she was left feeling disillusioned by her experience with Time’s Up and the Legal Defense Fund. “Sadly, I do not have any confidence in them, and their lack of self-awareness and continued allegiance to abusive, powerful people now defines them,” she says. “I certainly would not want to ever recommend them. As I have experienced, there is such a disconnect for what survivors actually need and what it means to support survivors, and they don’t seem to care enough to prioritize that.”
Even after Tchen’s unexpected departure, Time’s Up may never recover from the loss of trust that many survivors feel. Says Weingarten: “Tina is merely a symptom of the problem, and her exit doesn’t change anything. They have a lot of work to do.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.