NYMag: ‘The Mayor Knew’

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The Mayor Knew
By Alissa Walker
When Eric Garcetti gave his State of the City address on April 14, 2016, it was an unofficial pitch for his reelection as mayor of Los Angeles. Garcetti, who had been in office for three years, stood on the production floor of an LED manufacturer, portending a literally bright future for a Democratic star whose name would soon be floated for a presidential run. The day had gone off without a hitch, with every detail, from the selection of the venue to the social-media posts, closely overseen by Naomi Seligman, Garcetti’s director of communications, who had spent weeks with her staff drafting the mayor’s widely applauded speech.

Seligman’s team had just returned to her office in City Hall for a debriefing when her boss, the political consultant Rick Jacobs — Garcetti’s deputy chief of staff — burst into the room. Seligman speaks with the poised, hyperefficient cadence of a veteran comms strategist, but she winces when she describes what happened next. “He crushes me against his body, pulling me in with all his strength,” she says now, telling her story publicly for the first time. “I’m like a rag doll. He’s pulling me into him and kisses me on the lips for some long, uncomfortable period of time. He kisses me on the lips. I’m trying to push back, but he has my arms pinned down against the sides of my body so I have no leverage to push back.”

Jacobs eventually let go of Seligman, congratulated the staff on Garcetti’s speech, and walked out the door. “I’m surrounded by my entire team, and they’ve seen this act of dominance over me,” she recalls. “I felt humiliated.” Seligman went to find Ana Guerrero, Garcetti’s then–chief of staff, who was senior to Jacobs, at least on paper. “I walked into her office and looked at her and said, ‘I can’t believe what just happened. Rick just kissed me in front of my staff.’ And she just rolled her eyes. Like it was an annoyance,” Seligman says. “She wouldn’t talk about it. She didn’t even want to say, ‘I’m sorry it happened to you.’ The only thing she said was that there’s nothing we can do about him.”

For the past decade, those who experienced or witnessed Jacobs’s alleged harassment say this has been the line delivered behind closed doors to them by the Garcetti administration: Yes, we know about Rick, but he’s the mayor’s friend and there’s nothing we can do. Earlier this year, in a lawsuit brought against the city over Jacobs’s behavior, Garcetti testified under oath that he knew nothing about multiple allegations leveled against the man he once called a “dear friend, as well as one of my most trusted advisers.” Now, however, four people who worked closely with Garcetti and Jacobs are speaking publicly for the first time, saying the mayor was fully aware of Jacobs’s behavior. Despite alleged harassment so rampant it was called an open secret, some of which Garcetti allegedly witnessed, Jacobs kept his job at City Hall and later became Garcetti’s most influential strategist, laying the groundwork for a White House run, orchestrating off-the-schedule meetings, and traveling around the world with the mayor.

In a statement, Garcetti’s office denied the allegations: “As the Mayor has said repeatedly and under oath, he absolutely did not witness any sexual harassment by Mr. Jacobs, and if he had, he would have put a stop to it. These claims were false the first time they were alleged more than a year ago, and they’re just as false today.” An attorney for Jacobs said in a separate statement: “Mr. Jacobs is a person of integrity and compassion. To his dismay, he is unable to comment as he would like to because of a pending lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles.”

Garcetti won’t be mayor much longer, thanks to L.A.’s two-term limit, but he is up for a job in the Biden administration as U.S. ambassador to India — the type of post commonly awarded to loyalists like Garcetti, who was a prominent surrogate for Biden’s campaign last year. His confirmation is pending, with the Senate Foreign Relations committee expected to schedule hearings on his nomination.

Eric Garcetti has known Rick Jacobs for almost as long as he has been in public life. Garcetti won his first election in 2001, earning a seat on the Los Angeles city council. The 30-year-old had recently moved back home after completing a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he met his future wife, Amy Wakeland. They moved into a sleek mid-century home in the hills of Echo Park befitting a rising L.A. power couple. Soon after, Wakeland was working as a state director for Howard Dean’s presidential bid when she met Jacobs, then the campaign’s California fundraising co-chair. Jacobs was new to politics but already well established as a dealmaker with financial savvy, working as a vice-president for Occidental Petroleum and then as an investment manager for the wealthy philanthropist Erika J. Glazer and as CEO of the banking-and-investment firm he co-founded with the veteran Republican senator Howard Baker.

After Dean’s run imploded, Jacobs became the founding chair of Courage Campaign, a progressive advocacy group known for its fight against Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage passed by California voters in 2008. Among those who worked with Jacobs to overturn Prop 8 was Amanda Crumley, a longtime national Democratic strategist. She says Jacobs’s conduct was well known in L.A. political circles even back then. “It was on full display long before he went to work for Mayor Garcetti,” she said, adding that several young gay men she worked with over the years complained about his behavior. “Rick made me uncomfortable, too,” she says. “He would always kiss me hard on the lips. It wasn’t sexual, of course, but it was a power move for sure.” Numerous other men have come forward with similar accusations against Jacobs.

Jacobs stayed in touch with Wakeland after Dean’s campaign ended; in recent years, they spoke almost daily, she later testified. So in 2013, when her husband was locked in a close runoff race for mayor, Jacobs pitched in. He formed a PAC called Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti for Mayor 2013 that raised $2.3 million, mostly from unions and celebrities, and ran attack ads so vicious they were denounced by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. After winning, Garcetti made Jacobs deputy chief of staff — though Jacobs began calling himself “executive vice mayor,” a title that didn’t exist. In 2016, LA Weekly reported that he had told city officials that he needed to use that title because he represented the mayor internationally and the term was better understood in places like China.

The influence that Jacobs has held over Garcetti is hard to overstate. In addition to helping bankroll his election and serving as a top deputy in city hall, Jacobs co-founded and sat on the board of Garcetti’s nonprofit, the Mayor’s Fund, which has distributed millions of dollars to organizations across the city. Jacobs at one point took a leave of absence from city hall to campaign for Garcetti-backed ballot measures. Then he worked to build Garcetti’s profile for a future presidential run, raising money for the Democratic Midterm Victory Fund PAC to donate to Democrats in key primary states and co-founding alongside Garcetti the Accelerator for America nonprofit, which promotes economic development in U.S. cities. Garcetti used both of these organizations to travel across the country with Jacobs ahead of the 2020 election, often without sharing any information or itineraries publicly, before ultimately deciding against a White House bid. After Jacobs left the administration in 2017, one day each week on Garcetti’s official schedule was blocked off for daylong meetings together away from the office, often at the mayoral residence, Getty House, and sometimes at Jacobs’s house a few miles away, according to a former city-hall staffer who regularly attended those meetings.

Gaining an audience with Garcetti, who has an easygoing public persona, meant navigating an often-confrontational Jacobs. “As it turns out,” says one California Democrat with long-standing ties to both men, describing the dynamic, “there’s this pretty toxic guy who’s around him quite a lot, who bullies men and women in various ways, and he has for years, who is a donor whisperer when it comes to incredibly wealthy people, who has convinced a large number of people who either have assets or have access to assets that this is the way we do things at city hall.” For some L.A. leaders, Jacobs’s bullying, harassment, and retaliation were simply the price of doing business with the city. In 2019, during a disagreement over a school-funding ballot measure with Tracy Hernandez, the founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed), she says Jacobs told her that opposing the measure would prompt people to say she “hurts kids.” Soon after, a Twitter account named BizFed Hurts Kids was created by Courage Campaign, the organization Jacobs had founded, and high-profile city agencies suddenly pulled their BizFed memberships. “Rick Jacobs used his power as the mayor’s political operative to do financial and reputational harm to BizFed as an organization,” Hernandez says. “The mayor’s office at best has been willfully ignorant of this known bully and at worst has actively covered up this abusive behavior.”

Sooner or later, anyone who wanted to rub elbows with the mayor would make an appearance at Jacobs’s home. The Colonial Revival property at the foot of the Hollywood Hills with a leafy backyard and landscaped pool was where Jacobs would often fête legislators, lobbyists, and LGBTQ activists. It was also a place where some guests would find themselves on the receiving end of their host’s unwelcome advances, including Seligman’s husband, who was allegedly kissed by Jacobs at one such event.

“If I would see him at his house for a party, I felt like I had to do what I had to do for my work, or for the gay community,” said one former city employee, who says Jacobs touched him inappropriately for years. ”He’s the only person in my universe that has put fear into me.” One evening in the summer of 2013, just after Jacobs had been appointed to his City Hall role, this same employee was at one of these mixers, mingling in the yard with other L.A. luminaries, including Garcetti, when Jacobs headed toward him. “When I saw him coming, I would have a knot in my stomach. I would cry inside,” the former employee recalls. That night, Jacobs groped his buttocks and hugged him so tight he had to break free, he says, something that happened multiple times, both at Jacobs’s house and at other events, over several years, until he firmly told Jacobs to stay away. “The inappropriate touching and the grabbing happened all the time, and for a long time I wasn’t able to find my footing and to tell him to stop.” What’s more, Garcetti saw what was happening, says the former employee. “When he was doing those things, the mayor was in eyeshot, just two or three people away. You could not be at that party and not know what he was doing or how he was behaving,” he says. “He allowed Rick to stay on the city payroll and work for him personally on campaigns when he knew of his behavior. There is no question that the mayor knew of his behavior.”

In 2018, the year after Jacobs officially left city hall, he hosted a 60th-birthday party for himself at his home for about 50 guests. White string lights wrapped around the palm tree in the center of the backyard, and a band played songs including “I Love L.A.,” encouraging the crowd to sing along. Jacobs’s usual roster of political heavy-hitters, including Garcetti and Wakeland, had been assigned seats at tables of ten, and they were prompted to share a memory or funny story about Jacobs, according to several guests who were there. Garcetti had prepared remarks for his roast of Jacobs, which included a joke about Jacobs using Grindr, but Garcetti told some guests that Wakeland was uncomfortable with the jab. “Amy doesn’t want me to say this,” one guest recalls Garcetti saying. “She’s mad at me because I’m going to say something and she doesn’t think I should.” According to the guest, Garcetti then said, “What do you mean? I can’t believe we’ve never been sued for everything that Rick’s done.’”

That same year, Jacobs recruited Jeremy Bernard to be CEO of the Mayor’s Fund, the nonprofit Jacobs had co-founded with Garcetti. Bernard had been a social secretary and special assistant to the president in the Obama White House and had known Jacobs for more than a decade. Bernard, too, heard Garcetti express similar concerns, as he also testified earlier this year. “I heard him say it more than once,” Bernard says. “It was definitely said with this genuine feeling of relief that they got through the period that Rick worked there without being sued. Can you believe that we got through it without a lawsuit?”

Two years later, the lawsuit that the mayor had been dreading became reality. LAPD officer Matthew Garza joined Garcetti’s security detail in 2013 and said Jacobs began to harass him almost immediately, according to his complaint filed against the city. The lawsuit describes a pattern by Jacobs of forcible hugs, unwanted touching, and crude remarks about “rough sex” and “big cocks” — “You guys ready to fuck without K-Y?” was what Jacobs would sometimes say in the car on the way to events — including rubbing Garza’s biceps and shoulders while whispering comments in his ear like “You feel so strong” and “Your muscles are so tight.” Henry Casas, a public-engagement director for city hall, testified that he saw Garza being harassed and that Jacobs gave Casas shoulder massages during weekly meetings. “It was common knowledge in the office,” Casas said. Indeed, Garcetti staffers apologized for Jacobs’s behavior to Garza more than a dozen times, according to the complaint. And according to Garza’s lawsuit, “Mayor Garcetti was present on approximately half of the occasions when Jacobs behaved in this way, and witnessed Jacobs’ conduct, but he took no action to correct Jacobs’ obviously harassing behavior.” Garza said that in 2016 he heard Garcetti discuss the possibility that Jacobs’s inappropriate behavior would “bite them in the ass.” Garcetti was asked under oath if he had ever expressed surprise that the city hadn’t been sued over Jacobs’s behavior. “I have never said that to anybody, publicly or private,” Garcetti testified earlier this year.

The mayor was not telling the truth, according to Seligman, who said in a deposition that she also witnessed Jacobs harassing members of the mayor’s security detail with Garcetti in the same room. “Listen, I saw the harassment and inappropriate touching,” says Seligman. “I experienced it, I reported it, and nothing was done. So on top of the toxic environment that Rick created in and around city hall, people were forced to tolerate his harassment — to the point of pretending it wasn’t happening at all. Once the lawsuit was filed, Mayor Garcetti chose to deny he’d ever seen anything inappropriate — even though, as I had seen for myself, he’d witnessed Jacobs crossing the line on countless occasions. To me, this was a shocking abdication of his responsibilities.” Seligman accused Garcetti of a “cover up” in a letter sent by her lawyer to the Senate Foreign Relations committee, where hearings for his nomination as ambassador to India will soon be held. In a statement, the White House reiterated that Garcetti had said he didn’t know about Jacobs’s behavior before the lawsuit and added that “the president has confidence in Mayor Garcetti and believes he’ll be an excellent representative in India.”

After Seligman left in 2017, she was replaced as communications director by Suzi Emmerling, who had previously served as deputy chief of staff to the secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration. Emmerling said that she was immediately warned by co-workers to steer clear of Jacobs; in fact, over the years, several employees told her they had been harassed. To her, it seemed like part of a pattern. “With me, he exerted his power as a bully,” Emmerling says. “And with others, he exerted his power by touching them and commenting on the size of their penis.” Emmerling testified that in 2018, she asked Guerrero, Garcetti’s then–chief of staff, if the mayor knew how bad Jacobs was — and that Guerrero replied that he did. (Rebecca Ninburg, an L.A. city fire commissioner, testified under oath that Seligman had told Ninburg immediately after Jacobs kissed her and that Seligman had also reported it to Guerrero.)

Emmerling agrees that knowledge about Jacobs’s behavior was widespread. “To be in that orbit is to know this was Rick’s M.O.,” Emmerling says. “No one, and I mean no one, was blind to that fact.” In a deposition, Guerrero said no one ever reported Jacobs to her, and she provided this statement to New York: “I forcefully stand by my testimony. These allegations are patently false. Ms. Seligman never reported anything like this to me, and neither did any of the people she claimed witnessed the incident. Neither Ms. Seligman nor Ms. Emmerling ever reported any sexually inappropriate behavior by Mr. Jacobs to me.”

Garza’s lawsuit would bring out more damaging accusations, such as the time Garcetti allegedly saw Jacobs grind against a staff member. In May 2017, Garcetti had traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate about L.A.’s infrastructure plans ahead of a Summer Olympics bid. He was joined by chief counsel Julie Ciardullo and Jacobs, who traveled with Garcetti on official trips during this time despite having no official role with the mayor. The group boarded a small elevator with other Garcetti staffers in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where Jacobs began commenting on the tight squeeze, according to Ciardullo’s deposition. Jacobs began thrusting his body toward Ciardullo, backing her into a corner. “He was joking around and sort of, you know, invading my personal space, um, you know, just getting too close,” Ciardullo testified. She told Jacobs to stop, but he ignored her, and Garcetti jumped in. “And I’m not saying this was his exact words, but he said something to the effect of, you know, ‘Stop’ or ‘Cut it out.’”

Ciardullo said in her deposition and in a separate statement that she “did not consider this interaction to be sexual harassment.” When Garcetti was asked, this past June, about what happened, his office told the Los Angeles Times in a statement that he didn’t remember the incident, but “Ms. Ciardullo is a person of high character and integrity — and her description is consistent with how he would handle any situation where he witnesses someone behaving unprofessionally.”

A few weeks after the D.C. trip, Garcetti and Jacobs and several colleagues flew down to Miami for the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting. On an ocean-view balcony at the Fontainebleau Hotel, five members of the entourage took a group photo with the mayor at the center. Jacobs is standing on the left, his shoulder turned inward, with his right hand hovering over the crotch of the unidentified man next to him. Inches away, Garcetti is looking at the camera and giving a double thumbs-up.

Jacobs, Garcetti, and colleagues at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Miami in 2017.

When the Times published the photo in November 2020, four months after Garza’s lawsuit was filed, Garcetti finally tried to distance himself from his longtime friend, calling Jacobs’s behavior “totally inappropriate” in a statement. “I did not see him do this and I had never seen this photo before the L.A. Times sent it to our office yesterday. Jacobs no longer represents me in any capacity and has not worked in the Mayor’s Office since 2016.”

The cold tone belied the warmth Garcetti and his family had shown Jacobs right after the lawsuit had been filed, which Garcetti had said “shouldn’t keep somebody who has been a committed public servant from being able to continue to serve our community and our world.” The day after the lawsuit was made public, Garcetti sent Jacobs a WhatsApp message later exhibited as evidence. “How you doing today? I’m sorry for the bright light. It sucks,” Garcetti wrote. Jacobs responded: “I’ve made lots of calls/emails. Let’s talk when you can. A lot of great responses from Anita, many others.” In his deposition, Jacobs explained that “Anita” was Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, of which Garcetti was a national co-chair. (A longtime Democratic strategist, she previously gave informal damage-control advice to Harvey Weinstein ahead of the New York Times’ exposé about him.) Garcetti’s father, Gil, a former Los Angeles district attorney still plugged into the legal world, had even given Jacobs a heads-up that the suit was going to be filed weeks before it was made public, according to depositions taken later. On the same day Garcetti and Jacobs corresponded, Gil texted Jacobs a message of support from himself and his wife: “So sorry you have to go through this. We are with you Gil and Sukey.” One month later, Jacobs appeared at a Zoom party for Wakeland’s birthday.

Since his nomination in July, Garcetti has traveled to D.C. five times, meeting with senators, including Republicans, who have pledged to block Biden’s nominees. On September 13, Garcetti was back in L.A., scheduled to make remarks at the opening of the city’s newly established Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department. As the program began, protesters disrupted the ceremony, chanting about Jacobs: “How many people knew?” Garcetti was seen using WhatsApp to message a staffer who was at the event. “Staff guidance is pull out,” the reply from the staffer reads, “no speaking.

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