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Bloomberg for years has battled women’s allegations of profane, sexist comments

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks during the Alabama Democratic Conference Luncheon at Embassy Suites in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

NEW YORK - As Mike Bloomberg celebrated his 48th birthday in 1990, a top aide at the company he founded presented him with a booklet of profane, sexist quotes she attributed to him.

A good salesperson is like a man who tries to pick up women at a bar by saying, “Do you want to f---? He gets turned down a lot - but he gets f----- a lot, too!” Bloomberg was quoted in the booklet as saying. Bloomberg also allegedly said that his company’s financial information computers “will do everything, including give you (oral sex). I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”

At the time, some Bloomberg staffers said, they laughed off the comments in the 32-page booklet, "The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg," as a macho side of one of the nerdiest men on Wall Street.

But others viewed them more darkly, seeing them as blunt examples of what they considered to be a hostile environment, artifacts of a workplace employees said was saturated with degrading comments.

Several lawsuits have been filed over the years alleging that women were discriminated against at Bloomberg's business-information company, including a case brought by a federal agency and one filed by a former employee, who blamed Bloomberg for creating a culture of sexual harassment and degradation.

The most high-profile case was from a former saleswoman. She sued Bloomberg personally as well as his company, alleging workplace discrimination. She alleged Bloomberg told her to "kill it" when he learned she was pregnant. Bloomberg has denied her allegation under oath, and he reached a confidential settlement with the saleswoman.

The Washington Post interviewed a former Bloomberg employee, David Zielenziger, who said he witnessed the conversation with the saleswoman. Zielenziger, who said he had not previously spoken publicly about the matter, said Bloomberg's behavior toward the woman was "outrageous. I understood why she took offense."

While allegations about Bloomberg's comments and treatment of women have received notice over the years, a review by The Post of thousands of pages of court documents, depositions obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with witnesses underscores how Bloomberg and his company, Bloomberg LP, have fought the claims.

A number of the cases have either been settled, dismissed in Bloomberg's favor or closed because of a failure of the plaintiff to meet filing deadlines. The cases do not involve accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct; the allegations have centered around what Bloomberg has said and about the workplace culture he fostered.

Now, as Bloomberg is increasingly viewed as a viable Democratic candidate for president and the #MeToo era has raised the profile of workplace harassment, he is finding that his efforts to prevent disclosure are clashing against demands that he release former employees and complainants from their nondisclosure agreements.

The allegations that he tolerated a hostile office culture could undercut his ability to criticize President Donald Trump's alleged sexual misconduct and efforts to keep such claims private.

Other Democratic candidates have dealt with related issues. Sen. Bernie Sanders last year apologized to female staff members of his 2016 campaign who said they were sexually harassed by co-workers, saying it was "unacceptable behavior." Former vice president Joe Biden, facing allegations that he had touched or kissed women without consent, said last year that his "expressions of affection" were misconstrued but that he would "pay attention" to the concerns.

One of Bloomberg's rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said in December at an Iowa campaign stop that nondisclosure agreements are "a way for people to hide bad things they've done." She called on Bloomberg to release women from such agreements.

Asked while campaigning to respond, Bloomberg said: "Maybe the senator should worry about herself and I'll focus on myself." He acknowledged enforcing nondisclosure agreements by his former employees and said, "You can't just walk away from it. They're legal agreements, and for all I know the other side wouldn't want to get out of it."

Bloomberg declined an interview request. A spokesman said Bloomberg would not release anyone from a confidentiality agreement, and that he would not release his depositions in the cases.

Bloomberg has given varying responses over the years when asked about some of the quotes in the "Wit and Wisdom" booklet. His spokesman said in 2001 that "some of the things he might have said" and Bloomberg apologized to "anyone that was offended by" the comments. Bloomberg at one point referred to them as "a bunch of Borscht Belt jokes."

After The Post informed the Bloomberg campaign that it planned to put online a copy of the full booklet, spokesman Stu Loeser said, "Mike simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift, which has been circulating for 30 years and has been quoted in every previous election Mike has been in."

At the same time, Loeser added, "Mike openly admits that his words have not always aligned with his values and the way he has led his life and some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong." He did not provide specifics.

Loeser issued a more direct denial of the allegations in the lawsuit brought by the former saleswoman who said Bloomberg told her to"kill it." He said Bloomberg "did not make any of the statements alleged in" that case.

Patricia Harris, chairwoman of Bloomberg's campaign, said in a statement that Bloomberg "has always hired and promoted women into senior leadership roles in industries long dominated by men."

"In any large organization, there are going to be complaints - but Mike has never tolerated any kind of discrimination or harassment, and he's created cultures that are all about equality and inclusion. Anyone who works hard and performs well is going to be rewarded, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or anything else. "

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Bloomberg has long boasted about his relationships with women, while stressing that he never dated someone who worked for him. He wrote in his 1997 autobiography that before he was married in 1976, he "traveled with a big expense account, I had a girlfriend in every city" and "set new records in 'burning the candle at both ends.' "

In 1993 Bloomberg divorced his wife, Susan, with whom he raised two daughters. He described his bachelor life this way in a 1996 interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper: "I like theater, dining and chasing women. Let me put it this way: I am a single, straight billionaire in Manhattan. What do you think? It's a wet dream."

In the lawsuits against Bloomberg and his company, the former employees allege that Bloomberg's views about work and women permeated corporate life.

In the most high-profile example, a top saleswoman, Sekiko Sakai Garrison, alleged that Bloomberg told female salespeople about a male colleague getting married: “All of you girls line up to give him (oral sex) as a wedding present.” And, the lawsuit said, when Bloomberg saw certain women, he said, “I’d f--- that in a second.”

Garrison went to work in 1989 for Bloomberg, becoming a leader in selling the namesake business information terminals from which the company derived much of its profit. Garrison worked in the company’s New York office and made many of her sales to clients in Japan. She said in her lawsuit that she regularly talked with Bloomberg.

A year after Garrison's arrival, a senior official at the company compiled Bloomberg's sayings in the "Wit and Wisdom" booklet. Some of the quotes were first reported by New York magazine in 2001 and have since appeared elsewhere.

The Post obtained a copy of the booklet. Bloomberg is quoted as desiring oral sex from a well-known actress and is quoted as saying, "If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they'd go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale's."

The employee who assembled the booklet, former chief marketing officer Elisabeth DeMarse, wrote in the introduction, "Yes, these are all actual quotes. No, nothing has been embellished or exaggerated. And yes, some things were too outrageous to include."

DeMarse was quoted in 2001 in New York magazine as saying Bloomberg's comments were "a bonding thing when everyone laughs. You stop thinking that it might be inappropriate." She told the magazine she sat next to Bloomberg for seven years. DeMarse went on to be chief executive officer of the online news sites TheStreet and Newser. DeMarse, who worked at Bloomberg LP from 1988 to 1998, signed a nondisclosure agreement and declined to comment.

Garrison said in her suit that shortly after her arrival, she began to observe Bloomberg making inappropriate comments to her and other women at the company.

“The Company, through its male managers and employees from Chief Executive Officer Bloomberg on down, engaged in a pattern and practice of sexual harassment, sexual degradation of women, and discrimination” against Garrison because of her nationality, the lawsuit alleged. She is of Japanese descent.

Bloomberg's lawyer denied the claims in a court filing, adding that Garrison failed "to take advantage of any complaint or grievance procedure or opportunities provided by Bloomberg."

In one incident, Garrison said in the suit, Bloomberg "was unhappy with the outcome of a business meeting. He said to a newly-hired female Company sales person, ‘If (clients) told you to lay down and strip naked so they could f--- you, would you do that too?’ " Garrison said Bloomberg made similar remarks for all six years of her employment.

Bloomberg also allegedly said about Garrison that he would have sex with her "in a minute," but he regretted that she didn't have "legs and an a-- " like a certain actress.

Garrison alleged that Bloomberg berated female employees who got pregnant. "What the hell did you do a thing like that for?"Bloomberg allegedly told one pregnant employee. On another occasion, the lawsuit said, Bloomberg berated a female employee who had trouble finding a nanny. "It's a f------ baby! . . . All you need is some black who doesn't have to speak English to rescue it from a burning building."

When Bloomberg learned on April 11, 1995, that Garrison was pregnant, according to her suit, he allegedly said to her, "Kill it!" Garrison asked Bloomberg to repeat what he said, and she said he responded, "Kill it! Great! Number 16!," which she took as a reference to the number of pregnant women and new mothers at the company.

Garrison said in the suit that she interpreted Bloomberg's remark as an instruction to "have an abortion to keep her job."

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For years, the disputed "kill it" comment has been a central focus of questions about how Bloomberg treated women. David Zielenziger, a former Bloomberg technology writer, told The Post he was there and heard the conversation.

"I remember she had been telling some of her girlfriends that she was pregnant," Zielenziger said. "And Mike came out and I remember he said, 'Are you going to kill it?' And that stopped everything. And I couldn't believe it."

Zielenziger said he never talked to Garrison about what he heard and did not participate in her lawsuit. He said Bloomberg's question was crude, inappropriate - and typical. "He talked kind of crudely about women all the time," Zielenziger said.

Ken Cooper, a software engineer who now is the company's global head of human resources, said he was in a nearby conference room when the conversation took place. He said he didn't hear what Bloomberg said, but in an interview arranged by Bloomberg's press office, he recounted that Garrison approached him moments after the encounter.

"I told Mike I was pregnant," Garrison said, according to Cooper. "I think he may have said, 'Kill it.' "

Cooper said Garrison "wanted to know if I heard what he said. And if I did hear, did I understand? I said,'Look, I'm sorry, I was too far away.' " Cooper said in the interview that he concluded Garrison "wasn't sure what Mike said."

Bloomberg soon learned that Garrison was upset with him.

Shortly after the incident, Bloomberg called Garrison's home phone and left a lengthy voice mail, according to her handwritten notes of the call obtained by The Post.

"When you have time, give me a buzz or stop by," the CEO said. "I didn't even know you were pregnant until the other day." Bloomberg said that another employee had told him "you were upset." He said that "whatever you heard wasn't what I said and whatever I said had nothing to do with pregnancies." Bloomberg concluded the voice mail by saying he "couldn't be happier you are having a child" and "I apologize if there was something you heard but I didn't say it, didn't mean it, didn't say it."

A Bloomberg spokesman did not dispute the content of the call notes.

In her lawsuit, Garrison said she complained to managers but they told her to "forget it ever happened." A few months later, Garrison alleged, Bloomberg "directed" her firing. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Garrison's initial lawyer in the case, Bonnie Josephs, said of her former client: "She's completely credible." She said Garrison's allegation that Bloomberg told her to "kill it"was an "anti-female statement in the employment context. She had a good cause of action." She said Bloomberg should authorize the release of the depositions and let them be subjected to public scrutiny.

Josephs provided The Post with access to thousands of pages of documents related to the case.

Bloomberg eventually agreed to a confidential financial settlement with Garrison, who had sought $5 million in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.The amount of the settlement has never been disclosed, but three sources with knowledge of it described it as being in six figures.

Shortly after Garrison left the company, an employee named Mary Ann Olszewski sued Bloomberg LP in 1996, alleging that she was drugged and raped by her supervisor. She said that employees from Bloomberg on down engaged in a pattern and practice of "sexual degradation of women" and that Bloomberg made comments about employees such as, "I'd like to do that piece of meat."

Olszewski, who worked as a sales representative, said in her suit that the company "took no steps to prevent or curtail the ongoing sexual harassment of female employees by Michael Bloomberg."

After Olszewski allegedly was raped by a supervisor in a Chicago hotel room, Bloomberg was informed. He later described his response in a deposition, an excerpt of which was first published by the Village Voice in 2001. The full deposition has never been made public. Olszewski could not be reached for comment.

Bloomberg was asked in the deposition what would constitute "satisfactory proof" that one of his employees had been raped by another.

"I guess an unimpeachable third-party witness," he responded.

The lawyer seemed stunned. In what kind of rape, he asked Bloomberg, would there be a third-party witness?

"There are times when three people are together," Bloomberg responded.

But, Bloomberg said, if there were only two people present, and they gave conflicting accounts, there would be no way to know who is telling the truth and "all we can do is provide separate working environments for the two."

Loeser, the spokesman, did not dispute the accuracy of the excerpt but said Bloomberg "said it during a contentious deposition and this does not reflect what he believes."

Bloomberg was also asked in the deposition about Olszewski's allegation that he had said he would like to "do that piece of meat."

Responded Bloomberg: "I don't recall ever using the term 'meat' at all."

The case was dismissed when Olszewski's lawyer failed to meet a filing deadline.

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Bloomberg, who was mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013, put the company in a blind trust during that period.

In the midst of that service, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Bloomberg LP, alleging it had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against female employees based on their sex and pregnancy.

The 2007 complaint said the employees' pay was decreased and that they were subjected to demotions. In some cases, the women said they were replaced by junior male employees. Some of the language in the suit echoed the allegations raised by Garrison.

The company "has been engaged in a pervasive course of discriminatory conduct based on sex/pregnancy against its pregnant employees. . . . This systemic, top-down discrimination is fostered, condoned and perpetuated by the highest levels of management within Bloomberg and by the ownership of Bloomberg, to wit, Michael Bloomberg" and others. Once a female employee says she is pregnant, "they fall into disfavor," the suit said.

While the case focused on events that took place when Bloomberg was not running the company, the EEOC deposed Bloomberg twice, asking him about the company culture he had fostered. The Post obtained the depositions under a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

Throughout the hundreds of pages of testimony, Bloomberg repeatedly denied that there was any discrimination at his company. He also was asked about Garrison's allegation that he told her to "kill it" in reference to her unborn child.

"I never said those words and there would be no reason to do so, it's ridiculous and an outrage," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg said in one deposition that he tried to hire the best people "regardless of gender, and men don't get pregnant, women do, so if you're going to have a high proportion of your employees as women, that's something that going to happen and you have to accommodate their needs."

During one deposition, Bloomberg was asked about a 2006 email from one company executive to another that focused on whether the company was doing enough to help pregnant women and mothers with newborn children.

The executive said that an employee who returned from maternity leave "cannot juggle full time work and the needs of her infant. She believes she could work a part-time schedule but I advised her that Bloomberg makes no provision for helping new moms transition back to work this way."

The executive complained that the company had lost several valued employees and that “most large corporations these days have figured out creative ways to accommodate working moms. . . . I am very surprised by the lack of flexibility here at Bloomberg.”

As for the policy, Bloomberg said in one deposition that "I don't believe part-time work works very well" but that he had tried to accommodate mothers who had sought it.

Bloomberg grew irritated when a lawyer asked him about women who said they were discriminated against.

"Do you make up these names or are they legit?" he asked.

"I don't," the lawyer responded. "I've been taking these depositions, Mayor Bloomberg, almost 200 so far."

The case was eventually dismissed by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, who wrote that the evidence was "insufficient" to show a pattern of discrimination "even if there were several isolated instances of individual discrimination."

Bloomberg returned to the company in 2014 and last year took leave to run for president. The company last year expanded its parental leave policy from 18 weeks of paid leave to 26 weeks, which it said is one of the most generous in the industry. The company said women hold an increasing number of top positions.

Trevor Jarrett, who oversaw Bloomberg's business in Australia and New Zealand from 1989 to 2001, said he saw Bloomberg's attitude toward women change.

Jarrett said he got to know Bloomberg at a time when they worked in an industry that was "male-dominated and full of inappropriate comments by everybody, not just Mike. I could tell he changed a lot through the '90s, including at my recommendation of putting a woman in charge of the office in Sydney." Over time, Jarrett said, Bloomberg was "as fair to women as he was to men."

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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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