News & Politics

Why Won't This #MeToo Legal Fund Represent Biden's Sexual Assault Accuser?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden, participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Time’s Up Legal Foundation will represent any woman accusing any man of sexual assault — unless the man in question is Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.

Tara Reade claims that Biden assaulted her while she was a staffer in his Senate office in the 1990s. Reade filed a complaint at the time, and told her mother, her brother, and a friend who worked in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. According to the Intercept, she approached the Time’s Up Legal Foundation asking for legal representation. Time’s Up declined her case, citing overblown concerns about losing its tax-exempt status for meddling in a political campaign.

A powerful arm of the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund launched in December 2017 and became the most successful GoFundMe campaign in the website’s history, raising more than $24 million. The defense fund is a 501(c)3 nonprofit housed within the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Time’s Up has represented some of those assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, along with scores of others with allegations against executives.

Reade’s case seems a perfect fit for the legal fund. While her claims of sexual assault against Biden initially surfaced last April, she laid low for a time after receiving a great deal of politically-motivated backlash. When she contacted Time’s Up in January 2020, an NWLC program director reportedly directed Reade to outside attorneys and suggested the defense fund might subsidize legal assistance and PR.

Reade said the director wrote a note she said she would forward to attorneys, noting that Reade “was attacked … online” by Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served in the Bush administration and then ran for Senate in 2018 as a Democrat, and by The Atlantic‘s Edward-Isaac Dovere. The note claimed that Painter and Dovere smeared Reade as a “Russian operative.”

“There is more to the story of the harassment that she did not feel safe sharing at that time. She is looking for support in sharing her story and guidance on any possible legal action she may be able to take against online harassers,” the note added.

Both Painter and Dovere did not explicitly call the former Biden staffer a Russian operative, however. They merely pointed to Reade’s previous blog posts on Medium, which gushed with praise for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. These blog posts, and the fact that Reade supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary, led many to dismiss her claims as politically motivated.

In February, Time’s Up got back to Biden’s accuser. The legal fund said no assistance could be provided because Biden was a candidate for federal office, so assisting a case against him could jeopardize the group’s nonprofit status. Time’s Up would not pay for legal assistance or for PR in the case.

The program director who had worked with Reade referred the Intercept to NWLC spokeswoman Maria Patrick, who repeated the claim about nonprofit status.

“As a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the National Women’s Law Center is restricted in how it can spend its funds, including restrictions that pertain to candidates running for election,” Patrick said. “Our decision on whether or not to provide certain types of support to an individual should not be interpreted as our validation or doubt of the truthfulness of the person’s statements. Regardless, our support of workers who come forward regarding workplace sexual harassment remains unwavering.”

Ellen Aprill, a professor of tax law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, argued that Time’s Up would not be risking its tax-exempt status in the case, so long as it followed its standard criteria.

“As a legal matter, if the group is clear regarding the criteria used as to whom it is taking to court, show that these are long-established neutral criteria, and they are being applied to individuals completely independent of their running for office, it would not be a violation of tax law. Groups are allowed to continue to do what they have always done,” Aprill argued.

Yet the Intercept hinted at another explanation. The public relations firm that works on behalf of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is SKDKnickerbocker. That firm’s managing director, Anita Dunn, is the top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign.

After the Intercept article drew more attention to Reade’s claims, the accuser fleshed out her story in comments to podcast host Katie Halper. She claimed the assault took place in 1993. The Intercept confirmed the story with Reade’s friend and her brother. The friend, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Intercept that the alleged assault derailed Reade’s life.

Reade, no fan of President Donald Trump, lamented that her story might help the president. “I don’t want to help Trump. But what can I do?” she asked. “All I can do is stand on my truth.”

During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Biden championed the #MeToo movement against sexual assault. “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real,” he said at the time. By this standard, the former vice president should have to prove his innocence. Conservatives would note that sexual assault claims require proof, just like any other claims — but Biden has championed a different standard.

Whatever the truth of this accuser’s claims, it seems particularly noteworthy that Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund refused to represent her. Whether or not Anita Dunn was involved in the decisionmaking, it seems likely political bias played a role in the decision.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.