The president’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Romania could face scrutiny over claims that he sexually harassed a legal secretary while he was a partner at a large firm.
Adrian Zuckerman, a Seyfarth Shaw partner nominated by President Donald Trump in July, was sued in 2008, alongside his former firm, Lowenstein Sandler, by Jamie Ferrauiola in Manhattan federal court. Among other allegations, Ferrauiola claimed Zuckerman showed her pictures of semi-nude women, used sexual gestures and language in reference to women in the office and spoke to her about his sex life in graphic detail.
The case, which has not been previously reported, was settled within a year, according to Southern District of New York court records. Lowenstein and Zuckerman’s answer to the complaint denied all allegations.
Zuckerman and representatives at his current firm, Seyfarth, which defended him in the harassment suit, did not return messages seeking comment.
A former White House lawyer, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly on the issue, said amid the #MeToo movement, “if it’s sexual harassment, it puts the White House in a difficult position of evaluating who is right and who is wrong,” and whether the administration wants to risk political heat from the nomination.
In Zuckerman’s case, the Trump administration may have already decided it can take the scrutiny.
An attorney familiar with the Trump administration’s nominations process said any nominee facing Senate confirmation must go through a two-track clearance process, including an ethics analysis and a deep investigation of the person’s fitness for the position. The latter would include past conduct and allegations, such as lawsuits, said the attorney. Harassment issues could be disqualifying, but allegations are not presumed to be true, the attorney added.
“The fact that this nomination was announced means this analysis was done and he survived,” the attorney said.
Zuckerman still faces a Senate confirmation hearing.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has made a habit of asking nominees whether they’ve ever committed “any verbal or physical harassment” and whether they’ve ever entered into a settlement over such allegations.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which holds confirmation hearings for U.S. ambassador nominees, asks them to submit to a questionnaire about their background. A copy of the committee’s questionnaire that was obtained by ALM asks nominees, under an ethics category, whether they’ve ever been a party in litigation and to describe the details.
Zuckerman’s completed questionnaire would only be available to committee members and their staff, said a committee aide.
Questions about litigation history also arise in a security clearance application that U.S. ambassador nominees typically have to complete, said Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who handles security clearance cases. A section in that application asks nominees whether they have ever been a party to a public record civil court action in the last 10 years, which is within the time frame the parties settled the case.
Given there was a settlement, no admission of liability and an insurance company probably paid for any possible financial settlement, Zaid said, the case would not ordinarily pose a security concern. Unless the government found something egregious or a pattern of other people coming forward, “then I wouldn’t expect it to be a significant hurdle for the individual’s [security] clearance,” Zaid said.
But “in today’s age and climate, it is more of a suitability issue,” he said. “Issues of sexual harassment are more sensitive today than they have been in previous times.”
“I would expect the administration to have some concerns regarding suitability, but it depends on the facts,” he added.
Trump himself has denied sexual misconduct claims by several women during his presidential campaign. But Zaid said he knows of one would-be political appointee who lost a Trump administration job because of sexual harassment allegations, which he said never became public. “It was taken very seriously by the White House and the agency in question,” he said, “and the person ended up resigning.”
‘Harassing and Inappropriate Behavior’
The suit against Zuckerman and Lowenstein, initially filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, was removed to the Southern District federal court in December 2008.
Ferrauiola claimed that after she was hired at Lowenstein to work as Zuckerman’s secretary, he frequently asked if she wanted to meet him for dinner and would invite her to have drinks with him during working hours.
According to the suit, he would force her to have closed-door meetings, where he would show her pictures and screen savers of semi-nude women and update her on his love life. She alleged he spoke about his sex life in graphic detail and asked for dating advice.
She also claims she was humiliated by remarks that Zuckerman made to others in the office, including that she “was bearing Zuckerman’s child.” Her suit references a vulgar term that Zuckerman allegedly made toward Ferrauiola and claims Zuckerman “frequently made sexual gestures” when referring to women in the office and spoke about “big breasted women.”
In the summer of 2006, the suit alleges, Ferrauiola told another Lowenstein partner about Zuckerman’s “harassing and inappropriate behavior,” and that partner told her he would inform the firm’s managing partner. According to the suit, the partner told her if the secretary promised not to sue Lowenstein, she would always have a job there. Still, Zuckerman’s conduct toward her continued and Lowenstein did nothing to curtail the behavior, the suit claims.
In spring 2007, before the suit was filed, Zuckerman left Lowenstein to join Epstein Becker & Green. Ferrauiola refused Zuckerman’s offer to join the firm with him at a higher salary, her suit claimed.
Soon after the suit was filed, Ferrauiola amended the suit to add further claims of discrimination, alleging a Lowenstein office manager discriminated against her and other non-African-American employees. She claimed she was fired in retaliation for complaining about the conduct at issue.
The suit was settled and dismissed by August 2009.
In a statement this week, Lowenstein said the firm “does not comment on personnel or legal matters, however, the firm takes pride in promoting a culture of respect for all of its employees, that is positive, fair and free from intimidation of any kind.”
Ferrauiola could not be reached for comment. Albert Adam Breud, who represented Ferrauiola in the complaint, said the settlement is confidential. “The matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” said Breud, of Firestone & Breud.
After Zuckerman left Lowenstein in 2007, he practiced at several firms, including Epstein Becker, LeClairRyan and then Seyfarth, his current firm and the defense firm that had represented him and Lowenstein in the harassment suit.
Zuckerman is a New Jersey resident who advises clients on real estate transactions and litigation out of Seyfarth’s New York office. He immigrated to the United States from Romania at the age of 10 and is fluent in Romanian.
At the time he was nominated in July, Seyfarth managing partner Peter Miller said in a statement that Zuckerman is a “valued partner and we are proud that he has been nominated to serve our country.” Miller added, when he is confirmed, Zuckerman “will be an exemplary representative of the United States as its Ambassador to Romania.”
A spokeswoman for the State Department declined to comment, deferring to the White House on questions related to presidential nominees. A White House spokesman did not return an email message on Thursday seeking comment. Representatives for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also did not respond to a request for comment.