NY open government advocate fired for sex harassment

Robert Freeman was a nationally known force for government transparency
Robert J. Freeman speaks to Gazette reporters and editors in March 2019.
Robert J. Freeman speaks to Gazette reporters and editors in March 2019.

Categories: News

ALBANY — For more than four decades, Robert J. Freeman was a champion of government transparency in New York.

As the executive director of the Committee on Open Government, he helped offer access to records that the state might have otherwise been happy to shield. But a state investigation revealed he had kept secrets of his own.

On Monday, he was fired after the inquiry showed he had sexually harassed a female reporter and engaged in other inappropriate sexual behavior using his state-owned computer.

According to the New York State Inspector General, Freeman engaged in “unwanted physical contact” with the reporter during a recent meeting to discuss the state’s public officers law.

During and after the meeting, Freeman, 72, touched the reporter’s back, shoulder and buttocks, parted her hair and kissed her on the cheek while embracing her head. The report also found that Freeman had made “very personal and inappropriate statements,” including derogatory remarks of a racial nature to the woman, identified in the inspector general’s three-page report as a “young female newspaper reporter.”

Confronted with the accusations, Freeman admitted “many of the allegations,” including a separate complaint that he had recently exchanged sexually suggestive emails and photographs with another young woman using his work email.

Investigators found that Freeman likely met the second woman during a presentation at Syracuse University last year, as part of his official duties with the state. The email correspondence indicated that the two “began to engage in a personal relationship,” and that some of the provocative emails were sent as recently as this month.

The report also found that Freeman used his work computer to look at sexually explicit images of hundreds of “scantily clad women.”

The New York Department of State, which oversees the Committee on Open Government, confirmed on Tuesday that Freeman was no longer employed by the state, but had no additional comment on the matter. The committee’s assistant director, Kristin O’Neill, had taken over on an interim basis, the department said, “and its operations continue unabated.”

The report from the inspector general also noted that the Westchester County district attorney’s office had consulted with the inspector general about Freeman’s actions, considering “potential criminal implications.”

The Journal News/ reported the firing and investigation on Tuesday, disclosing that the young reporter worked for its organization.

News of Freeman’s firing comes shortly after the passage of a new set of sexual harassment laws by the State Legislature and amid the ongoing national reckoning over such behavior, as exposed by the #Metoo movement.

Founded in the 1970s, the Committee on Open Government is considered a valuable tool for reporters, public officials and others looking to use and navigate the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and other laws geared toward increasing government transparency.

Freeman, who had been with the committee since its founding, had offered advice, narrated YouTube videos and educated New Yorkers on what sort of government information is available to the public.

“I have what I’ve considered forever, or at least it seems that way, to be the best job in state government,” Freeman said in one video tutorial. In 2010, he was given the Open Government Hall of Fame award by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Attempts to reach Freeman at his home and via email were unsuccessful.

The investigation suggested, however, that Freeman’s behavior was not an isolated incident: In 2013, Freeman had received a “counseling memorandum” after inappropriate behavior toward several female employees of the Department of State.

“I appreciate the swift action taken by the Department of State,” said Letizia Tagliafierro, the state inspector general. “The abuse of a public position to engage in illicit conduct will not be tolerated by anyone at any level in New York State government.”

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