Bloomberg's sexist remarks fostered company culture that degraded women, lawsuits allege

Bloomberg allegedly told employee who had just announced pregnancy to "kill it."

Mike Bloomberg has on repeated occasions faced and fought allegations that he directed crude and sexist comments to women in his office, including a claim in the 1990s that he told an employee who had just announced she was pregnant to "kill it."

"He told me to 'kill it' in a serious monotone voice," the woman alleged in a lawsuit. "I asked 'What? What did you just say?' He looked at me and repeated in a deliberate manner 'kill it.'"

Bloomberg has repeatedly denied that specific allegation -- which arose in a discrimination lawsuit that was settled out of court. But over the years a number of women have alleged in legal filings that Bloomberg’s use of lewd comments around co-workers fostered a frat-like culture at the company he founded and still owns. Quotes attributed to him in court filings include, "I’d like to do that piece of meat," and "I would DO you in a second."

Court records reviewed by ABC News indicate that at least 17 women have taken legal action against the company over the past three decades, with three of the cases specifically naming Bloomberg for his role in the company’s culture. None of the cases made it to trial – four were either dismissed or withdrawn, while five were settled out of court. Three cases remain active.

The comments attributed to Bloomberg in court records are echoed in a gift book he received from colleagues in 1990: a compilation of his alleged quotes. The booklet contained alleged comments such as, "Make the customer think he’s getting laid when he’s getting [expletive]," and, “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdales.” The booklet received media attention a decade later when he ran for mayor of New York.

"The atmosphere was toxic and harassing," said Bonnie Josephs, a New York attorney who represented the woman who alleged that Bloomberg suggested she terminate her pregnancy.

While many of the cases brought against Bloomberg LP over the years have taken aim at other managers and executives, several of the early complaints alleged Bloomberg’s attitude and statements about women fostered a hostile work environment himself. Some were dismissed, while others were settled with no admission of wrongdoing.

Former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg steps off a bus as he arrives to visit a closed energy plant during a campaign event in Alexandria, Va., Dec, 13, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

In recent days, Bloomberg and his staff have begun to acknowledge that, in the midst of the first presidential campaign of the #MeToo era, he will have to address these allegations as he seeks the Democratic nomination for president.

"Mike Bloomberg has supported and empowered women throughout his career -- from appointing women to the very top positions in his mayoral administration to supporting women candidates for higher office to an industry-leading 26-weeks of paid family leave at his company," Julie Wood, a Bloomberg campaign spokesperson, told ABC News. "At the same time, Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong. He believes his words have not always aligned with his values and the way he has led his life."

As a late entry in an already heated race for the Democratic party nomination, Bloomberg has little margin for error. The allegations that he had a reputation for making crude comments about women and condoned a "locker room" business environment -- earned or not -- comes on the heels of a #MeToo movement that sent the careers of countless business, entertainment and political figures into a tailspin.

"If Mr. Bloomberg is running for president, I think the public needs to know what actually happened in this business," said Josephs.

The challenge confronting Bloomberg will be especially acute as he tries to court Democratic primary voters, said Michele Swers, a professor of American government at Georgetown University.

"The Democratic primary is more heavily female. And women, Democratic women in particular, are more sensitive to those kinds of situations," Swers said.

He declined through a spokesman to be interviewed by ABC News for this report. But on Sunday, at a campaign event in North Carolina, Bloomberg told ABC News his company has an "enviable record" of gender equality.

"There will always be somebody that’s not happy, but we are -- we do very well in terms of attracting men and women to come to work in the company, and the retention rate with both of them is good as I think any real company," Bloomberg said. "So, I’m very proud of what we do."

A spokesperson for Bloomberg LP denied allegations of gender discrimination, citing the company's efforts to promote women into executive positions and improve benefits for women, especially in recent years, such as a new a policy instituted earlier this year to allow a 26-week maternity leave.

The Bloomberg campaign added that as mayor, Bloomberg surrounded himself with women as senior advisers and implemented policy initiatives meant to advance gender equity, including nursing assistance for low-income mothers.

Decades of allegations

Bloomberg officials told ABC News that the culture at the company today is nothing like a frat house. When he returned from his tenure as mayor, a spokesman said, Bloomberg "commissioned a company-wide effort to promote gender equality across the business." On its website, Bloomberg is quoted saying the company is "dedicated to empowering the women working at Bloomberg across every level and every function."

A company spokesman noted a passage in Bloomberg’s autobiography, in which he described the decision to open an office in Japan in the 1990s, in which he says he was advised by other business leaders to not send women.

"Bloomberg being Bloomberg, we opened without a local partner (and had no governmental problems) and sent two women to run the place (who were accepted and able to hire men to work under them). So much for convention," he wrote.

Former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg arrives to speak about his plan for clean energy during a campaign event at the Blackwall Hitch restaurant in Alexandria, Va., Dec. 13, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Bloomberg served three terms as mayor of New York City, and occasionally faced sparks of similar criticism. In 2013, then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn accused Bloomberg of having a "potty mouth" after a report from an event where he allegedly saw a woman in a tight dress and blurted out to a friend, "Look at the ass on her."

Bloomberg later denied making the comment.

More criticism followed when Quinn -- who ran to succeed him as mayor -- was quoted in a magazine article saying the mayor offered unsolicited commentary on her choice of flats over high heels or waiting too long to dye her hair.

While the allegations of a frat like and demeaning atmosphere at his company largely came out of lawsuits describing conduct from the 1990’s, critics say problems have continued.

"We have investigated the company for the last four years, and the culture is such that women are not valued," said Donna Clancy, an attorney for three former employees who have sued both Bloomberg and his firm. "In fact, they're objectified, based upon the complaints that I've filed on behalf of three plaintiffs and the history that's listed in those complaints."

The dozen legal complaints over the years include multiple specific allegations of crude statements by Bloomberg himself in the 1990s. In one case, he is alleged to have told a female employee, regarding her boyfriend, to, "Keep him happy with a good [oral sex]."

At a 1996 dinner party, he is alleged to have announced to a table of colleagues, "I'd love nothing more in life than to have Sharon Stone sit on my face."

"Bloomberg would gawk at women and say about their legs, 'I like that,'" according to an unnamed former Bloomberg employee quoted in court records from 1995. "He defended his attitude by saying it keeps him young."

"If you should notice his penetrating stare upon yourself, Bloomberg would just smirk," another former employee said, according to court records.

The allegations are echoed in a booklet, presented to Bloomberg as a gag gift at a 1990 office party, memorialized over 32 pages a compilation of crude, and at times sexist, remarks he is alleged to have made openly during his early years at the helm of the company. ABC News has obtained one of the few original copies of the book. Bloomberg has said in the past that he did not recall making the comments described in the booklet.

"The atmosphere [at Bloomberg LP] was toxic and harassing," Josephs told ABC News, reflecting back on the dozen or so witness interviews she conducted in the mid-1990s with former Bloomberg employees.

Bloomberg served as CEO of the company from 1981 until 2001, when he ran for mayor of New York City. He won that race and served as mayor for three terms and returned to Bloomberg LP in late 2014. He stepped down again when he launched his presidential bid in November.

Former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg arrives to speak about his plan for clean energy during a campaign event at the Blackwall Hitch restaurant in Alexandria, Va., Dec. 13, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

'Kill it'

One of the most commonly cited examples of Bloomberg’s alleged sexist remarks came to light in a 1997 lawsuit filed by an employee at the firm, a sales manager named Sekiko Sakai.

"[Sakai] thought [Bloomberg] would be pleased that she was pregnant," Josephs, the lawyer who initially represented Sakai in the case, told ABC News.

That is when Bloomberg allegedly told her, 'Kill it.'"

Josephs recalled that Sakai "said she felt very distressed" by Bloomberg’s reaction and it "really upset her emotionally." Bloomberg’s alleged remark, Josephs said, reflected a "locker room atmosphere that was a sexually harassing atmosphere."

Bloomberg LP settled Sakai’s case on undisclosed terms, and she is now bound by a confidentiality agreement.

In media interviews since then, Bloomberg has specifically denied the "kill it" remark. In 2001, he told the NBC Today Show he "never said it."

"[I] took a lie detector test and said under oath I didn’t say it and there’s no evidence I ever said it," Bloomberg said that year, sharing the examiner's report with reporters.

In notes that Sakai's lawyer said Sakai made after a call from Bloomberg, Bloomberg allegedly said, "I apologize if there was something you heard but I didn't say it, didn't mean it, didn't say it ... and whatever."

Josephs said she believes the record of allegations against Bloomberg undermines the credibility of his denials.

"I believe these women," Josephs said. "If [Bloomberg] denies it, I don't believe that. I believe that denial to be incorrect."

A pattern of discrimination?

In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that polices workplace harassment and discrimination, brought a sweeping case alleging discrimination against pregnant woman and new mothers who worked at the firm.

The lawsuit alleged that the company engaged in a pattern of discrimination against women after they became pregnant and after they took maternity leave. Sixty-seven women were prepared to join the case. The time period of the misconduct alleged in the lawsuit was between 2002 and 2007 while Bloomberg was mayor of New York City and not involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, although he remained the majority owner of it. A court dismissed the case in 2011.

The more recent complaints that name Bloomberg himself do not allege any new statements or other impropriety by him. But that hasn’t stopped litigants from targeting the man in charge.

A 2016 lawsuit is one of several that blame Bloomberg personally for the culture there.

"Mr. Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s founder, CEO, and President, and the former three-term Mayor of New York, encouraged this type of sexist and sexually charged behavior," says the complaint, which was filed anonymously by a 26-year-old female who worked there.

"Bloomberg’s notoriously sexist and hostile work environment has been well documented and has been the subject of myriad law suits prior to this lawsuit."

Former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks about his plan for clean energy during a campaign event at the Blackwall Hitch restaurant in Alexandria, Va., Dec. 13, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Although Bloomberg was away from his company for more a decade, including serving as mayor, he has maintained his ownership, and Donna Clancy, the lawyer with three pending lawsuits against the company, told ABC News that Bloomberg's alleged comments have fostered a "top-down culture" of accepting discrimination against women.

Josephs agreed: "It's his company, it’s his business. He frames the atmosphere. He has to be responsible for it."

The company has refuted the claims in court documents.

Judges in both cases have issued rulings removing him from the suits, but Clancy has appealed, claiming that executives like Bloomberg should be held responsible for the culture at their businesses.

The alleged misconduct by Bloomberg executives cited in the three active cases allegedly took place between 2012 and 2016. One of Clancy's clients, identified only as Margaret Doe, accused her manager of sexual assault. The manager was fired from the company before allegations surfaced, a company spokesperson said.

A second lawsuit accused the firm of wrongful termination when she was dismissed while undergoing breast cancer treatment, and the third, brought by former sales executive Johnna Ayres, accused the company of age and gender discrimination. Bloomberg himself was named as a defendant in the Doe and Ayres cases.

NDAs and the silence of women

One way for the public to learn more about "what actually happened" at Bloomberg LP, Josephs said, would be for the firm to release women who complained about the work environment from strict nondisclosure agreements.

A company spokesman told ABC News that the company rarely settles disputes, preferring to take them to court.

When cases are settled, they generally include confidentiality provisions, so the extent of the alleged misconduct is not known, Josephs said.

Sakai, whose 1997 lawsuit accused Bloomberg of discouraging women from having children, settled her case against both Bloomberg and the company out of court for an undisclosed amount of money in exchange for her signing a nondisclosure agreement. Reached by ABC News, a lawyer for Sakai said she may be willing to share her story if the nondisclosure agreement were to be voided by the campaign.

ABC News has spoken with several women who expressed interest in telling their stories, but feared the prospect of facing retribution from the company for speaking out.

One former employee who worked at the company from 2003-2005, and spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, made similar allegations to those outlined in lawsuits over the years. The woman claims that a series of events, including a pregnancy, led her superiors to "sideline" her.

"Going to work was uncomfortable, everything was awful at that time," the woman said. "It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me."

When she left Bloomberg LP, she said the company asked her to sign a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for cash, but she declined.

"Everybody I knew was taking them," she said, referring to the confidentiality agreements.

ABC News asked Bloomberg through his campaign if he has considered releasing these women from their nondisclosure agreements. The Bloomberg campaign declined to comment.

ABC News' Kaitlyn Folmer and Olivia Rubin contributed to this report.

Related Topics