In a shot against Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren shows how easy it is to nullify an NDA

The first salvo.
The first salvo.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren appeared on a CNN Town Hall in Nevada last night armed with a prop: a legal document.

It was a contract she had written that gave fellow aspiring president Michael Bloomberg—the business mogul and former mayor of New York—the opportunity to liberate ex-employees at his eponymous financial information firm from nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) signed years ago.

Of course, Bloomberg surely has an army of attorneys able to draft such releases for him, should he so desire, and he doesn’t need the former Harvard Law School professor’s pro bono services. But Warren was making a point. According to damning media reports, the Bloomberg NDAs have allegedly kept several past employees from speaking publicly about their boss’s history of making degrading sexual comments about women at the company.

“So, I used to teach contract law. And I thought I would make this easy,” Warren said. “I wrote up a release and covenant not to sue. And all that Mayor Bloomberg has to do is download it—I’ll text it—sign it. And then the women, or men, will be free to speak and tell their own stories,” she said, to cheers and some laughter from the audience.

“This is an election for president of the United States, and transparency here is important,” she also told the crowd.

Warren, who later tweeted an image of the release, also read a portion of it:

“Bloomberg and the company release any and all obligations contained in any agreement including but not limited to any employment settlement, severance, or nondisclosure agreement between Bloomberg and/or the company and any other person to the extent those obligations preclude the other person from disclosing information relating to sexual harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct at the company or by Bloomberg himself. Under this release, it is now the other person’s choice to disclose such information or not.”

To be sure, the move was a political stunt. The contract would be binding were Bloomberg to sign it, but no one expects that to happen. Still, Warren’s document kept the topic in the cultural conversation, one day after she memorably called out Bloomberg for the same problem during a televised Democratic debate.

Stunt or not, Warren put Bloomberg on the spot and made it a teachable moment. Her release document proves how easy it would be for not just Bloomberg’s past employees but scores of workers across the US to be freed from the gag orders. With this, Warren flipped the script on a billionaire boss and assumed the role of national employment law prof.

Companies often rely on NDAs to prohibit employees from disclosing details of a complaint as part of a settlement. Public awareness of how the agreements silence employees who might otherwise confront sexual harassment and discrimination has increased dramatically since the start of the #MeToo movement.

As it happens, publisher Conde Nast has just announced that it will stop asking its staff to sign NDAs, inspired by reporting within its own vast empire. As The Daily Beast notes, The New Yorker magazine, a Conde Nast title, was among the most tenacious news outlets to report on Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie producer whose reliance on NDAs enabled him to harass dozens of women.

Notably, Bloomberg, who remains CEO of the organization that made him a billionaire, does not stand accused of sexual misconduct or harassment. But last Saturday, The Washington Post published an explosive story that has arguably dramatically altered the businessman’s presidential campaign.

In the piece, reporter Michael Kranish detailed allegations that Bloomberg for years made bawdy, demeaning jokes about women’s appearances, sexual acts, and pregnancies. In one of the milder examples, described in a complaint filed by a former executive, Bloomberg is alleged to have said to a new salesperson, “‘If [clients] told you to lay down and strip naked so they could f— you, would you do that too?'”

During the democratic debate, Bloomberg dismissed his past behavior, saying of certain past employees, “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”

The flippant response, in view of the gravity of the allegations made against him, only showed that the presidential hopeful isn’t too concerned about workers’ hurt feelings. That makes it highly unlikely that he would ever sign a release of the kind Warren drafted for him. But it also proved the law professor’s point about the mogul-mayor’s candidacy being eerily familiar to that of another billionaire boss.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said on Wednesday evening. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”