Press advocate Robert Freeman engaged in persistent pattern of sexual harassment, IG’s report finds

Robert Freeman speaking to reporters at the Gazette in March 2019
Robert Freeman speaking to reporters at the Gazette in March 2019

Categories: News, Schenectady County

ALBANY — Former government transparency official Robert Freeman repeatedly groped, kissed and harassed female journalists and state employees in a pattern of predatory behavior stretching back at least 15 years, according to a state inspector general’s report released Thursday.

Freeman, who served as the state’s resident expert on open meetings and public records laws for over four decades, came under scrutiny with state government officials for inappropriate behavior toward women as early as 2003 and received official condemnations and warnings for such behavior in 2003 and 2013.

The report outlines multiple failings within state government and the media profession in their lack of understanding the extent of Freeman’s persistent behavior and in not giving it greater attention.

Freeman, 72, abused his position as executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, a state agency charged with promoting laws that ensure public access to government meetings and records, according to the report. He did so by making himself out to be an indispensable source for reporters across the state. He used his state computer and email address to correspond with a female foreign student he met at an event, ultimately receiving sexually-provocative pictures on his official email account, the report says. He also downloaded pictures of scantily-clad and in some cases nude women to his work computer and regularly needed state technology personnel to clear viruses and malware from his computer, according to the report.

The inspector general’s investigation found that Freeman sexually harassed women both within state government and journalists, regularly targeting young reporters early in their careers. He allegedly followed a pattern of commenting on women’s looks and making inappropriate physical contact through unwanted hugs, kisses and touches. He regularly took walks around the Empire State Plaza, inviting women to join him and sometimes groping women he approached along his route, the report says.

“The inspector general found that Freeman habitually engaged in sexual harassment of multiple women over many years,” according to the report. “By leveraging his unique position … to gain access to women in the workplace, Freeman breached the public’s trust.”

The report concluded “there is a lack of established oversight and supervision for the (open government) committee’s executive director” and called for “a clear supervisory and reporting structure for Freeman’s successor.”

Reports of inappropriate behavior first emerged in 2003 after a female state government employee accused Freeman of kissing her on the cheek in a hotel lobby during an overnight business trip and inviting her to dinner. The employee reported the incident to a supervisor, stating that she felt uncomfortable about the behavior. Freeman at the time was “verbally admonished that this behavior was inappropriate, and he should not engage in this type of behavior in the future,” according to the report.

But a decade later in 2013, in the span of less than two months, four separate allegations of misconduct toward women came to the attention of an affirmative action official in the state Department of State. The women involved did not file formal complaints, but the affirmative action officer opened a formal investigation because of the number of allegations in a short time span. Freeman allegedly made inappropriate comments about women’s looks and invaded their personal space, at one point looking at a woman “up and down in a gross way.”

As a result of the investigation, a state official wrote a formal counseling memo advising Freeman he had potentially violated state sexual harassment policies and directing him to stop engaging in such behavior. Freeman was also required to attend sexual harassment prevention training and reissued a copy of the policy.

The 2013 investigation found that Freeman’s behavior “toward female employees could create a hostile work environment if not properly addressed.”

In 2015, a news editor sent a letter to the Committee on Open Government outlining an interview Freeman had with a female reporter during which he allegedly made inappropriate personal comments about the reporter’s looks.

But Freeman continued in his position until a reporter in June filed a formal complaint claiming Freeman sexually assaulted her during a meeting she had with him in May seeking comments for a story she was working on. The reporter accused Freeman of squeezing her shoulders, touching her buttocks and making inappropriate comments about her physical looks and race. She also said Freeman followed her to her car and kissed her on the cheek. After the meeting, the reporter texted her editor: “I had one of the most uncomfortable meetings with Freeman. He was extremely inappropriate with me and did some very not okay things and disrespected me.” The reporter later told state investigators she thought Freeman’s behavior was “too calculated to be a singular occurrence,” according to the report.

After this incident was investigated, Freeman has fired on June 24.

The report also partly blames members of the media for not reporting abuses or for continuing to rely on Freeman as a source despite knowledge of his misbehavior.

“This investigation also found that many reporters and editors tolerated Freeman’s misconduct because, in part, he was a consistent and reliable source for the news media who made himself seemingly invaluable to aspects of their work,” according to the report.

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