The two top officials overseeing Milwaukee’s host committee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention were sidelined Monday amid allegations of a toxic work culture.
In a letter to staff obtained by the Journal Sentinel, the board said it had retained an attorney to investigate “concerns about the work environment” for the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee.
During the investigation, Liz Gilbert, president of the host committee, will not be in the office and “will not have direct contact with staff,” the letter says. Adam Alonso, the chief of staff for the group, has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the probe.
Both will be paid as the investigation moves forward. The letter gives no timeline for when Carmen N. Decot, a partner with Foley & Lardner, may finish her probe.
The abrupt move comes less than six months before the start of the Democratic National Convention. The host committee – the civic, nonpartisan arm of the convention – is responsible for raising $70 million to stage the July event at Fiserv Forum and recruit some 15,000 volunteers.
“We are committed to an inclusive, non-discriminatory, and supportive environment at the host committee and we will work to ensure that all employees live up to these ideals,” the board said in its letter.
Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of the Democratic National Convention Committee, issued a statement acknowledging the seriousness of the allegations. His group, which runs the convention, is separate from the host committee.
“The Democratic Party is firm in our belief that every person deserves to feel safe and respected at their place of work, and we will always take seriously claims of bullying and workplace harassment,” he said.
He said the claims made by employees of the host committee “present an unacceptable and upsetting environment.”
Solmonese added that the host committee board of directors “is moving forward with a plan to restore an office culture that aligns with the values and expectations of our party.”
Alonso said he was proud of the team he created at the host committee and would cooperate with the investigation.
The stunning shakeup came as the Journal Sentinel contacted the host committee over concerns about the organization’s work environment. Sources say the host committee also recently received an anonymous letter raising similar complaints.
In interviews with the Journal Sentinel over the weekend, two experienced political hands who have worked with the host committee described it as having a toxic culture rife with power struggles, backbiting and mismanagement.
They accused the top two officials, Gilbert and Alonso, of giving contracts to their friends in New Jersey, calling meetings and then failing to attend them and being more focused on accumulating power than promoting Milwaukee.
A New Jersey firm with strong ties to the New Jersey Democratic Party, for instance, developed the website for the host committee and manages its email platform. Both Gilbert and Alonso are top-ranking Democratic operatives in that state.
These assertions come at the same time that Alonso is being accused in his home state of New Jersey of shaking down campaign contributors for his personal consulting business.
“It’s one of the worst – if not the worst – I have worked on,” the first official said of the host committee.
The second official said they would become sick to their stomach when working with the host committee, the first time they experienced a toxic work environment, despite working on numerous campaigns. “You know it when you see it, when you feel it,” the second official said.
Both added that they had high hopes for the host committee. But they said the culture at the committee reflects none of that enthusiasm.
“The spirit of what it could be for the city might be lost,” said the second official.
The two sources no longer work with the host committee, which is officially nonpartisan so it can raise money as a tax-deductible, nonprofit organization. They asked that their names not be used because they feared retribution and work in a specialized field.
Word of the alleged problems with the committee reached Mayor Tom Barrett over the weekend. Barrett and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore are honorary co-chairs of the host committee.
“The mayor supports a process to fully investigate the serious concerns that have been brought forward,” said Paul Vornholt, chief of staff to Barrett.
Moore said in a statement: “I support the board’s immediate remedial actions and believe they are establishing a process that will result in a fair, impartial outcome. I would expect or tolerate nothing less.”
The five-member host committee board moved quickly on Monday to look into the matter. Its letter was signed by four board members: Rebecca López, who works at the law firm Godfrey & Kahn; John W. Miller of Arenberg Holdings; Joan Prince of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Michael O’Neil, general counsel at The Dohmen Co.
Gilbert is also part of the five-member board.
The concerns raised about the host committee come less than a week after Alonso found himself in the middle of another controversy in his home state of New Jersey.
Julie Roginsky, a former strategist for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, said Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign operation was “toxic” and that she experienced “rank misogyny.”
Furthermore, she said lobbyists told her during the 2018 campaign that Alonso and the campaign manager were pressing the lobbyists for private business. Alonso owns a consulting firm called the Cratos Group.
Alonso denies the claims.
“That allegation is false,” he said via email.
“Gov. Murphy required all campaign staffers to disclose any and all relevant business relationships in New Jersey. I disclosed my political-business relationships, they were reviewed by campaign counsel, and they complied with campaign policies.”
Alonso declined to say whether particular firms worked for him while he worked on the campaign or as deputy chief of staff for the governor. He said Cratos does not disclose its list of clients.
He also rejected any suggestion that he played a role in creating a toxic work environment on the gubernatorial campaign.
“To be clear, Julie has not alleged that I engaged in any such behavior,” he said. “Regarding her allegations against a colleague of ours, those were investigated by campaign counsel, and our colleague apologized.”
Even as he works for the host committee, Alonso continues to be paid well by the New Jersey Democratic Party for work he’s doing there.
Recent federal filings show he was paid $15,000 in November, bringing his total take from the New Jersey Democratic State Committee to $80,000 since he came to Milwaukee to work on the host committee in May. He said he turned in his December invoice late, so that payment will not be reported until late February.
Roginsky gained national attention when she sued Fox News in 2017, alleging she was denied a position co-hosting a mid-afternoon show after refusing to have a sexual relationship with CEO Roger Ailes.
The two sides settled for an undisclosed sum later in the year. She became a Democrat contributor on Fox News beginning in 2005.
Last year, Roginsky and fellow Fox News alum Gretchen Carlson formed a group called Lift Our Voices. The organization is focused on trying to discourage companies and political leaders from using the secret agreements that can end up protecting those accused of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.
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