CHANGED MIND ABOUT PURSUING CHARGES:  Brett Copeland (left), who has accused American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox (right) of propositioning him in April 2017 shortly after promoting him to communications director, said he initially backed away from pursuing a complaint as a way of ‘protecting the union,’ but later concluded ‘I was protecting him.’ Mr. Cox has taken a leave of absence and trusts ‘the investigation process will sort the fact from fiction.’

The American Federation of Government Employees is conducting an independent probe into allegations of sexual misconduct that have been leveled against its long-time president, J. David Cox, according to an Oct. 31 announcement to union staff.

On Oct. 27, Mr. Cox announced that he would be taking a paid leave of absence.

‘Won’t Be a Distraction’

“This action will both reinforce the integrity of the investigatory process and prevent this matter from being a distraction for AFGE from the important challenges facing our members,” National Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelley wrote in an Oct. 31 email to the union.

“While I strongly refute these allegations, I am a lifelong defender of due process and trust the investigation process will sort the fact from fiction,” Mr. Cox wrote in his letter notifying union members he was stepping aside.

Mr. Kelley will assume Mr. Cox’s duties during his absence, as required by the AFGE constitution.

According to the union, the allegations were presented to it by Bloomberg News, prompting it to take “prompt action” that started by informing President Cox, who ordered an investigation. “He then immediately recused himself from that investigation,” according to the internal email.

Cite ‘Culture of Fear’

On Nov. 14, Bloomberg News published an in-depth investigative report entitled “Harassment, Culture of Fear Flourished at Federal Union, Staff Say,” which included quotes from past and current AFGE staffers expressing skepticism that the internal probe would “dig deep enough.”

“People in positions of power at AFGE have failed for years to deal with complaints about inappropriate behavior, bullying or bias, leaving workers and union members frustrated and anxious, dozens of current and former staff and members say,” the article stated.

It asserted “the alleged misconduct by Cox was just the highest-profile example of the yawning gap between the organization’s public persona as a champion of worker rights and the way it treated its own people.”

Bloomberg’s initial story in October recounted the experiences in April 2017 of Brett Copeland, when Mr. Cox, “repeatedly told him he loved him. Then he stuck his tongue in Copeland’s ear.”

Started in a Bar

“The two were in Palm Springs, Calif., for a meeting, making their way back to their hotel after running into each other at a bar, when the 66-year-old president of the American Federation of Government Employees urged his newly promoted 31-year-old communications director to come have a drink in his room,” according to Bloomberg. “Cox invited Copeland to check out his Jacuzzi. He declared his love again and again.”

Mr. Copeland resigned and went to top union officials with his complaint, including its general counsel David Borer, the article stated.

But ultimately, he opted to not follow through out of concern that the publicity would undermine the union, which has been in a pitched battle with the Trump Administration over its drive to eliminate collective bargaining and evict the union from the Federal workplace.

“It is my life’s work to lift up my sisters and brothers in the workplace, and I am truly sorry if I ever made anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or actions,” Mr. Cox said in his own emailed statement. “That was never my intention.” He said he could not “abide lies and scurrilous, politically-motivated attacks” and insisted that the internal investigation would vindicate him.

Mixed Emotions

“It felt like I was protecting the union by not pushing forward,” Mr. Copeland told Bloomberg about his decision not to pursue the charges. “But in retrospect, it seems I was protecting him-or that’s how it turned out.”

He is now the executive director of the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In a statement, the AFGE directly addressed Mr. Copeland’s allegations and the union’s response two years ago.

“The Bloomberg article contained one allegation that had previously been reported to AFGE,” the union wrote. “When Brett Copeland initially came forward with his allegations to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff immediately alerted General Counsel to the allegations. General Counsel took the allegations seriously and acted quickly.”

It continued, “General Counsel conducted an initial investigation into Mr. Copeland’s claims and found the charges credible enough for Mr. Copeland to bring a formal complaint and full investigation. Upon being informed of these findings and offered the chance to pursue a formal complaint, Mr. Copeland declined, ending this matter in a way consistent with his wishes at the time.”

Ex-EEOC Head to Probe

AFGE has hired Jenny Yang, a former U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair, to conduct the internal investigation, as well as a comprehensive review of the union’s workplace culture and climate.

In an email to AFGE employees obtained by this newspaper, Ms. Yang introduced herself and her firm, Working IDEAL.

“I am writing to ask for your assistance with our investigation,” she wrote. “At this time, our investigation is focused on allegations or similar concerns regarding his conduct—or the organization’s response to such allegations.”

The notice also welcomed the reporting of incidents unrelated to Mr. Cox that might involve AFGE national headquarters and/or national leadership.

AFGE represents 700,000 Federal workers employed by dozens of agencies across the country.

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