Spotlight on Sexual Misconduct Reopens Old Wounds at Marijuana Policy Project

Originally published in Washington City Paper on December 19, 2017.
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Nearly eight years ago, City Paper detailed a local sex scandal involving staffers at the Marijuana Policy Project, an influential advocacy group focused on promoting non-punitive marijuana laws.

Certain facts are undisputed: In early August 2009, Rob Kampia left an employee happy hour at Union Pub on Capitol Hill with a female subordinate. Kampia was the organization’s co-founder and executive director; the woman had, days earlier, broken up with her boyfriend, who was also an MPP employee. The woman was behind the wheel, but halfway through Kampia asked to drive, worried she was too drunk. He then took her back to his house in Columbia Heights, where they had sex.

Within two weeks, seven employees, including the woman, resigned from the organization. All MPP department heads joined together to unanimously call on the board to remove Kampia as executive director.

Kampia was well-known for making sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace, but after the August incident, according to several people who worked there at the time, the office felt not just creepy, but predatory.

City Paper’s 2010 article details the struggle within MPP over the incident—particularly the role of Alison Green, Kampia’s chief of staff and MPP’s unofficial head of HR. Green was also a longtime friend of Kampia. While she originally aligned herself with the department heads calling for Kampia’s removal, Kampia told her that MPP’s largest funder would pull out if he stepped down.

Soon Green said she was “no longer sure where I personally stand on the department heads’ recommendation.” Four days later, she told the managers that “after some rest and thought” she “no longer believe[s] it’s in the best interest of MPP for Rob to step down.” All complaints about Kampia’s behavior were still to go through Green, and she promised to relay them to the board. Many employees were deeply upset with Green’s about-face.

In the end, the board voted to keep Kampia on. One board member, Mitch Earleywine, resigned as a result. “It was a difficult decision and not what I thought I was going to do until that very moment,” he says. “I had to do it, but the fact that I had to do still brings me a lot of sadness.”

Following the incident staffers were required to attend sexual harassment training, and MPP implemented its first sexual harassment policy. (Employees had long requested one.)

Five months later, the press got wind of what happened, and Kampia then announced he would take a three-month break from the organization to seek therapy. “I just think I’m hypersexualized,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Kampia returned to lead the organization in April, and Green then resigned.

In the seven-and-a-half years since, the episode has been mostly forgotten. Kampia stayed on as executive director.

As for Green, her career has soared: She started Ask a Manager, a workplace advice blog in 2007. By 2010 she realized she was getting enough traffic to start making a living from management advice and consulting. Today, Ask a Manager gets nearly 3 million visits per month, and Green receives about 60 questions per day. She has become something of a national expert on navigating complicated workplace issues—including sexual misconduct. She also writes a weekly advice column for New York Magazine and has a book coming out next year on workplace problems.

But not everyone has moved past what happened in 2009, or is convinced MPP ever really addressed the problem. For some, the present wave of alarm over sexual abuse has reopened old wounds.

***

Late last month, Kampia finally stepped down from his executive director position, assuming a new role at MPP. He’ll be doing more fundraising but no longer managing staff. (Kampia describes it as a “lateral promotion” that he’d sought, where he’ll make “the same amount of money but for half the workload.”)

A number of cannabis industry leaders wondered if this abrupt change was a sign that Kampia’s past had caught up with him, and MPP’s board was racing to get ahead of a story in 2017’s climate of heightened vigilance over harassment.

MPP spokesperson Morgan Fox says no, and he says that there have been “no sexual misconduct allegations against any MPP employee since 2009 that I’m aware of.”

City Paper hears a different account from one former employee, Eric Smith, who worked as MPP’s director of IT. He says he left the organization after voicing concerns to a board member about an alleged incident involving Kampia and an intoxicated female employee at Kampia’s home the night of MPP’s 2014 holiday party. At the time of this party, Smith had submitted his resignation and given his 30-day notice; he was still working at MPP. After the holiday party, he told a board member he “would be willing to stay if action were taken.” He had worked at MPP long enough to weather the 2009 upset, but had told the board he would leave if anything of that nature happened again.

“When people leave a decent paying job with nothing else even lined up yet, they’re not leaving because they’re just ready to try something new,” says Smith. “They’re leaving because they’re pissed … I left without another job lined up because I realized the board was never going to take action.”

In a written statement submitted to City Paper, Kampia said, “No employees have alleged they were harassed at any holiday parties or elsewhere in 2014. As recently as December 17, 2017, MPP board members have unanimously stated they’ve received no complaints about harassment from affected parties or third parties since 2010. As for me personally, no MPP employees harassed me at any holiday parties in 2014, nor did I harass any employees, consultants, independent contractors, or others. Because our board of directors has received zero complaints, the board hasn’t even needed to deliberate harassment claims since 2010.”

Kampia also disputes allegations of misconduct in 2009, insisting the night he spent with the employee was consensual. “It was a relationship dispute,” he tells me in an interview. “[T]he colleague who wanted to hook up with me, she had just gotten out of a relationship with another colleague of ours. And that relationship ended I think four days previously.”

“She and I were going to start dating,” he says. But then, her ex-boyfriend “freaked out and quit, because apparently he wanted to possess her body, or something.” Kampia continues: “I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for him quite frankly because I didn’t really talk to him … There’s something on his mind that caused him to be upset and quit, and I’m guessing it was because the relationship was still too raw … Then he leaves, his friends leave, and now she feels like a jerk, so she leaves.”

I asked Kampia why his therapy sabbatical came several months after the alleged incident. “When two single people are hooking up that’s not particularly interesting, but when the press starts talking about it, now it starts to look like it’s really bad,” he says. “The reason the break happened in January was not because of the incident per se, but because of the press around it.”

***

City Paper also reached out to Green. Until now, despite working as a management guru who advises women on things like handling creepy men in the office, she had not addressed charges that she had enabled a boss’ inappropriate behavior.

Now Green says that she couldn’t say this at the time, but that she thinks “Rob Kampia is a serial sexual harasser who has been allowed to stay in his position of power because he’s good at his work.” She calls standing behind him in 2009 “the biggest regret” of her career.

“It was just the wrong call, and it’s haunted me for years. I would do anything to be able to go back and redo it,” she says. “I just made a lot of mistakes in that situation, and frankly I didn’t have any experience in how to handle a situation like that … so I tried to do what made sense to me, which was just to tell him over and over to stop. I really regret that I didn’t leave sooner, and that I did not explicitly support those calling for him to be fired.”

I asked her if and how this has affected her work as an advice columnist.

“I have a far better understanding than I want of how these issues end up being allowed to fester in organizations,” Green says, adding that she has “a really strong commitment now to naming [harassment] when I see it” and educating managers on how to respond, including urging them to leave when it appears an employer won’t change their ways.

And for others, the distress still lingers. City Paper spoke with multiple former MPP staffers, and found many still unhappy about the resolution of the 2009 episode. Some voiced frustration with how the board handled it, and others expressed unease with Green’s consulting career.

“She enabled a sexual predator for years,” says Salem Pearce, MPP’s former membership director who resigned in the wake of the 2009 incident. “It makes my stomach sick to see her out there giving advice.”

Max Socol, who started working at MPP in October 2009, less than two months after the incident, says he was hired completely unaware of what had just happened, or why there were so many open positions. “I was 23. I didn’t ask why the last person left, but Rob and Alison made no mention of anything in my interview,” he says. “They really actively concealed that anything had happened—anything out of the ordinary. What was so consistently gross and frightening about my job at MPP, which was one of the most miserable years of my life, was how clear it was how many wealthy, well-connected people were totally willing to let Rob behave as he wanted because he could get results.”

For her part, Green says she can’t remember all the details but that “it would have been crazy” to not brief new hires on the situation. Kampia says that even though the press hadn’t picked up the story yet, “you’d have to be an idiot not to know” given the size of the organization. “If you hire someone and they go into an office with 33 people who just saw the shenanigans happening a few weeks ago, it’s not like Rob’s going to be able to hide it,” says Kampia, speaking in the third person. “That’s just asinine that someone would try to claim I was not telling people what had just happened.”

Emily Stevenson, who worked at MPP between June of 2009 and May 2010, says six months after leaving “it really began to crystallize for me how horrific everything was.” Though a fan of Ask a Manager, Stevenson says that when it came to Kampia, Green seemed blinded by her personal relationship. “I think she knew the right thing to do, and when she talks about it she gives the right advice, but when it comes to Rob, she was just unable to see him.”

When I spoke to Green, she agreed, explaining that their friendship “muddled” her thinking “because I was more willing to believe the best of him.”

Smith, the former employee who handled IT, says he felt much more frustrated with Green back in 2009, but over the following half-decade, grew “significantly more sympathetic” to the position she was in, given his own interactions with the board.

Earleywine, the board member who quit, says “Alison had a big mess to clean up and I think she did a good job in a hellish situation.” Still, Earleywine says that despite the circulating rumor, it never seemed true to him that MPP would lose its biggest funder if Rob were removed as ED.

Kampia now holds the title “Director of Strategic Development” at MPP.

Green says that in the midst of this new cultural moment, she’s optimistic about women feeling more empowered to speak up and out. “But I am not sure that I’m feeling really optimistic about organizations listening to them,” she acknowledges. “Unless they’re forced to in some way.”

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