As a woman, Lisa Barbounis felt so threatened that day while sharing a living space with her boss, Gregg Roman, in a foreign country that she could not wait to leave and fly home. She felt so intimidated by his inappropriate sexual advances that she thought of keeping a knife with her in the room to protect herself.
It was not her choice to stay with her employer in the same space but a precondition set by him to obtain the opportunity of a work trip to Israel, a country she always wanted to visit.
This was one of the most excruciating details of the trauma that Barbounis, the former Director of Communication at Middle East Forum (MEF), recorded in her court submission while suing her former employers for sexual assault, sexual harassment, gender discrimination and hostile work environment.
In the lawsuit filed in December 2019 against MEF, a so-called Philadelphia-based think-tank known for spreading Islamophobia and misinformation, Barbounis flagged that at least 14 women including the Head of Human Resources faced sexual harassment and gender discrimination between 2016 to 2018 by Roman, the Director and Secretary of the organization.
Out of all, four women have filed criminal cases against MEF, founder-president Daniel Pipes, second in command Gregg Roman and program director Matthew Bennett for sexual assault, harassment, and gender discrimination. Pipes is accused of shielding the accused.
In April 2018, Barbounis travelled to Israel with Roman on the condition that they will be sharing a hotel suite, having two rooms and two bathrooms. On arrival, however, she found out that there was only one bathroom in the suite. Before signing up Barbounis for the work trip, Roman told her not to tell anyone that she would be accompanying him to Israel.
In her suit, Barbounis alleged the arrangement as a lure by Roman — using his influence, superiority, and proxy authority — with an intent to engage in sexual activity.
Tragic Stories of Sexual Assault and Misogny
Like Barbounis, Patricia McNulty, who worked as the acting director of development, in her submission to the District Court of East Pennsylvania, alleged that she and other women were routinely subjected to sexual assault, mental and physical harassment, and gender discrimination at the Middle East Forum.
In March 2018, during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC, McNulty alleged that Roman had violently yanked her and forced her onto his lap.
After the conference, Roman, who shared a living space with MEF program director Bennett, invited three women staffers, McNulty, Barbounis, and the then Director of Human Resources, Mernie Meyer, to their place of stay. There Roman sat between McNulty and Barbnounis on the couch, and while pulling McNulty towards him, Roman allegedly whispered inappropriate sexual advances into her ear.
He first tried to yank Barbounis, but he failed to grab her as she was at a safe distance, and then he allegedly grabbed McNulty by her upper thigh and violently yanked her into his lap.
Both the women joined MEF around October 2017 after a few female employees were terminated or forced to voluntarily leave the organisation after raising the issue of sexual harassment at the office.
About a year before Barbounis and McNulty had joined MEF, another employee named Rosie allegedly refused to work with Roman at close proximity due to severe and pervasive harassment and a hostile work environment created by the MEF director against female workers at the organisation.
Before leaving the organisation, Rosie reportedly said, “I will be dead before working for Roman.”
Both Barbounis and McNulty joined MEF following two former employees: Laura Frank and Lara were terminated from their positions in a controversial move by Roman after he accessed their chats on an instant messaging platform.
While Laura and Lara discussed their legal options of reporting Roman for sexually harassing them, the director broke into their digital systems and found out that the women intended to report him. In retaliation, they were terminated by the organisation.
Not just full-time employees, Roman purportedly sexually exploited young interns at MEF. During his Israel trip, Roman had called an 18-year-old French intern, Leah Merville to his hotel to complete the paperwork that the intern needed to complete her internship. He is accused of forcing the intern to give a blowjob and have sexual intercourse with him. According to the lawsuit, Roman later bragged about the incident to other female employees at the organisation saying that “her body was so tight” and “she gives a great blowjob”.
In a similar case, another intern Gabriella Bloom left MEF voluntarily and had stated that she called the quits to avoid, what she characterized as future, inappropriate sexual advances of Roman.
“ The intern voluntarily left the MEF and has stated that she left to avoid what she characterized as future, inappropriate sexual advances visited upon her by Defendant, Greg Roman. She said she could see it coming,” according to the court filings.
Roman did not even spare the head of HR at MEF. Marnie Meyer, whose official name is Marnie O’Brien, was subjected to constant misogyny and harassment. Roman would frequently make lewd and bigoted remarks. “Non-Jewish women were made for sex,” he told her one time, while on the other instance, he said, “I like older women.” He boasted of how he had sex with other female employees.
According to the court depositions, Meyer was the first woman whom Roman approached to travel with him to Israel for the work trip on the condition of sharing the living space. But she rejected his proposition “due to obvious implication of the inappropriate condition” She claimed in her lawsuit that Roman frequently and repeatedly harassed and hounded female staff that did not comply with his demands for sex.
In another lawsuit against MEF, Caitriona Brady, an intern who joined MEF in 2017 and later elevated to the position of development associate, accused Roman of subjecting her to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation that led to her “unlawful termination” at MEF.
While recounting her distressing experience at MEF Brady said that Roman would even count the number of times she went to the restroom.
“”Roman used his position as Director of MEF to make Brady’s life more difficult and forced her to work long hours by yelling at her in a violent and aggressive manner,” her complaint notes.
Apart from sexually abusing MEF female staff, Roman has sexually harassed and pressured female reporters into trading sex for news stories.
The court documents show that he tried to trade sex for story as well. The plaintiffs accused Roman of showing his sexual organ to a Washington Examiner reporter whom he had met in a bar in Washington. He lured the woman reporter outside the bar and exposed his private organ, and asked her to visit him in his hotel room within the next hour. He intimidated and coerced the reporter by saying that he would give the story to rival Washington Post. However, the female reporter rejected the quid pro quo arrangement and left the place.
Such hostility was not just limited to female employees, but also towards people from the LGBTQ community.When MEF founder Pipes and Roman found out that Eman Patel, one of their employees was a gay woman, they made a plan to harass and make her work life so intolerable that she quit the organisation on her own. They would also pass lewd remarks at her because of her gender and call her a “walking lawsuit”. According to Southern Poverty Law Center, Roman is also a featured speaker on Tony Perkin’s anti-LGBTQ radio show.
The female employees at Middle East Forum not only faced sexual harassment and misogny but they were also subjected to gender pay discrimination.
As a director of development, McNulty held a similar position as Bennett and performed the same duties as that of Bennett as program director. However, their monetary compensation had a wide difference of $ 34,000 a year.
While Bennett was paid $ 98,000 a year, McNulty only received $ 64,900 per year. In her lawsuit, she alleged that the compensation didn’t commensurate with her position of program director, which she held at that time.
HR director Meyer also discovered that several women were underpaid throughout the organisation. Male employees across the board were paid $10,000 or higher than their female counterparts holding the same positions, the lawsuit reads. She herself was paid $ 10,000 less than her male counterparts at MEF.
Daniel Pipes: The shield for Sexual Predators
Despite the fact that women employees faced sexual harassment and mental trauma at MEF, its president, Pipes, used his position most of the time to shield the accused. Moreover, he went on to say that he would go by the words of Roman, putting the security of dozens of its female staff in grave danger.
On November 1, 2018, five women employees, including Human Resource Director Meyer, submitted a handwritten 5-page note to Pipes detailing the sexual harassment meted out to women employees by Roman. She provided the handwritten notes, fearing that Roman would access her computer and might get hold of the same.
Following that, Pipes finally decided to have a meeting, but to their surprise, Pipes shielded the accused who had been preying on the female workers of MEF.
Pipes responded to the reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assaults by saying, “Roman’s conduct was not a big deal.”
In fact, Pipes allegedly maintained a methodical conclusion—“Roman’s conduct and comments had not risen to the level where discipline was warranted”—as in the case of MEF’s director forcefully having sexual intercourse with an 18-year-old intern for signing her internship papers.
Pipes forced all female employees to sign a new non-disclosure agreement that prohibited them from talking to anyone about any wrongdoing by company officers, including Roman.
The women accused Pipes of rewarding the harasser while introducing policies, procedures, and protocols designed to punish those female employees who flagged the cases of abuse and sexual harassment at every opportunity.
In bizarre analogy, Pipes created a comparison between priests who molested children and continuing their jobs and reportedly said, “because priests who molest children were permitted by the Catholic Church to remain priests, Defendant, Greg Roman should be permitted to continue his employment at the MEF.”
However, following the massive push by the women sexual abuse survivors, Pipes was forced to restrict Roman from entering the MEF office in November 2018 when the #MeToo movement was at its peak. But, to their surprise, Pipes brought Roman back to the office in March 2019.
Once back in the office, Roman started to use his powers as Director and purportedly called the complainants “usurpers” and “backstabbers.” The work environment became so hostile that many female employees had to tender their resignation and leave the organisation.
The sexual abuse survivors hoped that Pipes could have protected them from a person whose behavior was that of a “sexual predator,” but during the whole duration, he maintained his conspicuous silence and allowed everything to happen in front of his eyes.
“Had Daniel Pipes acted in accordance with laws aimed at protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace,” reads a lawsuit filed by one of the survivors.
“The prompt remedial measures would have been implemented to ameliorate and/or eliminate completely the future sexual harassment and sexual misconduct,” it added.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.