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Advocate for press freedom fired after sexual misconduct allegation

Robert Freeman, an outspoken advocate for freedom of information in New York state, was fired from his job Monday as the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government following a probe by the state inspector general that found “compelling evidence that Freeman acted in a sexually inappropriate manner.”

In a letter dated Monday, Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro told Secretary of State Rossana Rosado that a “young female newspaper reporter” had made a complaint of sexual assault against Freeman, alleging that he had made unwanted physical contact with her in the form of “squeezing her shoulder, touching her waist, back, and buttocks with his hand; parting her braids from her face and placing them behind her shoulders; hugging her; and kissing her on her cheek while holding her head.” The sworn complaint also stated Freeman had made inappropriate comments and racially-based derogatory comments to the reporter while he “repeatedly looked at her chest area.”

A review of Freeman‘s work computer showed he had also stored “hundr of photographic images of scantily clad women” and “several photographic images of naked women,” according to the inspector general.  A review of his work emails showed he had used state resources to send and receive “sexually suggestive email messages and photographic images that Freeman exchanged with another young woman,” the inspector general’s letter said.

Tagliafierro does not allege in her letter that Freeman‘s email relationship was  nonconsensual. 

The letter does reference that in 2013 Freeman was investigated for alleged inappropriate workplace behavior with several female Department of State employees. 

“At that time Freeman received a counseling memorandum and was directed to attend additional sexual harassment prevention and equal employment opportunity training with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, among other things,” reads the letter from the inspector general.

According to Tagliafierro’s letter, Freeman in sworn testimony “admitted to many of the allegations, including meeting with and kissing the young reporter, and, while using his work email system, exchanging emails with and receiving photographic images of a sexually suggestive nature from the young woman he met with presenting at the Maxwell School of Syracuse in his official capacity.”

Tagliafierro wrote that Freeman also admitted to downloading the photos of women to his computer. 

Freeman‘s firing was first reported by JournalNews/lohud.com on Tuesday, the employer of the female reporter who made the complaint against Freeman. The website also published Tagliafierro’s letter. 

Freeman, 72, had been involved with the Committee on Open Government since the 1970s. On the job, he was known for making frank comments to newspapers around the state regarding the conduct of state and local officials with respect to New York state’s Freedom of Information Law and the New York State Open Meetings Law. 

Rex Smith, the chairman of the New York State Publishers Association and the editor of the Albany Times Union, said the allegations against Freeman constitute a pattern of behavior that is unacceptable in the workplace. Smith said he’s known Freeman since he himself was a young reporter at Columbia University. 

“Bob has acted with distinction in his profession, acting as an aggressive advocate for openness and transparency for the state and for local governments, but it’s essential that the behavior that we believe he committed here is not be tolerated,” Smith said.

It was unclear Tuesday what will happen with respect to Freeman‘s position with the Committee on Open Government.
The state’s Public Officers Law specifies that the Committee on Open Government consists of the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, the commissioner of the Office of General Services, the director of the budget, or delegates from each of those state departments, plus “seven other persons, none of whom shall hold any other state or local public office.”

It was unclear Tuesday who actually serves on the Committee on Open Government, as their names do not appear to be posted on the committee‘s web page. 

Freeman, 72, was actually retired and receiving a state pension plus a reduced salary to continue serving at his position.

He often traveled to newspapers to give talks on the state’s FOIL and open meetings law. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the committee’s assistant director, Kristin O’Neill, had taken over on an interim basis “and its operations continue unabated.”

Smith offered some advice to Gov. Andrew Cuomo with respect to appointing a replacement for Freeman

“Nobody is un-replaceable. I think it would be wise for the Cuomo administration to try to replace Freeman with someone who has the same commitment that he had to transparency and openness, because he wasn’t just of help to the media; he helped the public to get information they have a right to see,” Smith said. 

Freeman could not be reached for comment for this story. 

 
 

 

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