WASHINGTON (AP) — A political advocacy group founded by Bernie Sanders entered into a nondisclosure agreement with an African American political consultant that bars her from discussing a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination at the organization and the Vermont senator's 2016 presidential campaign.
The consultant, Tezlyn Figaro, confirmed the existence of the nondisclosure agreement to The Associated Press without providing additional details.
The deal is tied to a 2019 lawsuit in which Figaro said she was fired from the Sanders-created political group Our Revolution a year earlier due to her race and in “retaliation for complaining about the organization’s treatment towards her and African-Americans.” The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. Though the lawsuit was aimed at Our Revolution, it included broad criticism of Sanders' campaign, arguing an all-white leadership staff “was accused of racism” by black staffers and failed to engage black voters.
Nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, have become common in presidential campaigns and political organizations in recent years as tools to guard against the release of private data, strategic conversations or other proprietary information. But such deals have become increasingly controversial as people alleging that they're victims of sexual harassment and misconduct or, in Figaro's case, racial discrimination have said they're prevented from publicly sharing their stories.
Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, one of Sanders' Democratic presidential race rivals, has faced criticism for the use of nondisclosure agreements at his company in cases related to sexual harassment. The former New York mayor has said he's willing to release three women from nondisclosure agreements related to comments he was accused of making in the past.
Sanders has acknowledged the mistreatment of women and minorities who worked on his 2016 campaign, and his advisers say they've taken corrective measures for his second run. Now the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders frequently says he is building a “multiracial, multi-generational movement” that will appeal to the broad coalition needed to win the primary and defeat President Donald Trump.
But legal experts say that argument could be undermined by a nondisclosure agreement that prevents a woman of color who has criticized Sanders' record on race from talking about her experience.
“Anyone running for the presidency should be accountable to the electorate, and we should have access to the full set of information,” said Debra S. Katz, a prominent employment attorney in Washington who has donated to Elizabeth Warren's campaign. "If the allegations are about his campaign and running a racist operation, he should direct this organization to let her out of those non-disparagement obligations and talk about it.”
Figaro was the director of racial justice for Sanders' 2016 campaign, then worked on black outreach issues for Our Revolution. According to federal court records, her case against Our Revolution was settled in July 2019 for an undisclosed amount.
Figaro confirmed the existence of the NDA but declined to comment further. Her attorney, Anthony J. Hall, said he could not comment on the terms of the settlement.
A spokesman for Our Revolution did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Sanders campaign said it couldn't comment on the specifics of the case, arguing the campaign can't legally have insight into the activities of Our Revolution.
In a statement, Sanders campaign spokeswoman Sarah Ford said, “We oppose using NDAs to silence the victims of toxic workplace issues."
After his effort to win the 2016 Democratic nomination failed, Sanders founded Our Revolution to keep up the momentum from the campaign. The group has employed current and former Sanders presidential staffers but operates independently from his campaign, though it has raised millions of dollars to support his current bid.
Figaro's roughly yearlong tenure at Our Revolution was tumultuous.
She was brought on by former Our Revolution President Nina Turner, a top Sanders surrogate who is now national co-chair of his 2020 campaign. When Turner tried to make Figaro Our Revolution's chief of staff, board members objected.
Past comments Figaro made about immigration on Twitter and as a pundit on Fox News quickly surfaced and drew rebuke, with critics and some Our Revolution staffers saying that they were anti-immigrant.
“If AMERICAN black folks can go to jail when they break the law then certainly so can an illegal immigrant,” she said in one tweet.
“U r being distracted abt ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS meanwhile more blacks are under prison/parole control in in 2010 than were enslaved in 1850," she wrote in another.
Figaro, who had long worked as a consultant to Turner, publicly apologized but was fired. Our Revolution was aware of her past comments when she was hired, according to her lawsuit. Turner didn't respond to a request for comment.
In the past, Figaro defended herself by noting that her comments echoed what Sanders has previously said.
“If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now,” Sanders said in a 2007 television interview explaining why he opposed a bipartisan immigration bill.
Sanders’ campaign says its key to victory in the 2020 Democratic primary and general election is to dramatically grow the electorate, appealing to working-class Americans and minorities who have often felt disillusioned with the political system.
Sanders' campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is the first Muslim American to lead a presidential campaign. Sanders likens his movement to the civil rights struggle, and he often mentions his own activist past, including getting arrested during protests decrying racism while at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. He has worked hard to woo minority groups, which has energized many young voters.
But in 2016, black staffers who were hired by Sanders to conduct African American outreach say the campaign did not take them seriously. Minority staffers said they were sent to do other tasks, like driving people around, instead of courting the black voters Sanders said he wanted to win.
“People will say it’s not a racial issue,” said John Solomon, who was based in Atlanta for the 2016 campaign and said he was sometimes assigned responsibilities that were outside of his job description. “But if I'm hired to gain support from African Americans and you go direct me to do something other than reach out to the African American community, what are we doing?”
After the black outreach team booked several successful events, including a rally at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, resources dwindled and black outreach staffers say Sanders' campaign began brushing them off.
His campaign has acknowledged Sanders' past failings and said it is trying to right them now.
Sanders has invested heavily in Spanish-language television advertising and organized dozens of events meant to appeal to Hispanic voters, including soccer tournaments for volunteers in Iowa and Texas and a town hall in Spanish led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Nevada. His backers affectionately call him “Tio” (Uncle) Bernie.
His campaign says that outreach helped him appeal to minorities who participated in satellite caucuses in Iowa and drove his win in Nevada decisively last weekend. He has said he can win Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, where the support of black voters is crucial.
But Solomon said the existence of Figaro's nondisclosure agreement reinforces his experience on the 2016 campaign.
“I know he wants to move past this, but I feel that he still has some work to do,” Solomon said.
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