When government lawyers filed a lawsuit against Bloomberg L.P., alleging widespread discrimination against employees who went on maternity leave, Mayor Bloomberg more or less called the whole thing a publicity stunt. “What’s happening,” he told reporters, “is that because I’m so visible, that obviously I’m a target.” And, in fact, his office banter, as alleged in lawsuits, was what made the headlines: Who would have thought that behind his carefully crafted technocratic image might be someone so crude and fratty? Now, as Bloomberg rolls out his reelection effort, he will have to answer all these allegations yet again. More interesting, Bloomberg might also have to shed light on how much he continues to control the company he founded.
On the morning of May 14, Bloomberg is scheduled to appear at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offices for a deposition, according to sources close to the case. A deposition of a company boss is standard procedure in lawsuits like this, but the federal case, which is now being brought on behalf of 80 women, stands to be a campaign distraction. If it goes to trial next year, it could also haunt the start of his third term. Bloomberg would not confirm the deposition date and declined to comment on the allegations.
According to the lawsuit and claims made in other discrimination suits, Bloomberg L.P. was a company that “prizes physical image” and “People Product”; where female employees were encouraged to wear “short skirts” and “ ‘fuck me’ shoes”; where bosses said, “I’m not having any pregnant bitches working for me”; and where Bloomberg allegedly once told a senior sales executive, “Kill it! Kill it!” (And apologized afterward.) Bloomberg L.P. claims it has a generous maternity policy, but the Feds are now charging in amended papers filed in March that it not only discriminates against pregnant women but retaliates too, by docking pay or threatening termination.
Bloomberg, who acquired Merrill Lynch’s 20 percent stake in his own company last July and now owns more than he did before becoming mayor (88 percent, worth roughly $20 billion), can’t be looking forward to Thursday morning. At first, he seemingly couldn’t believe he was getting dragged into the mess. (“As you know, I haven’t worked there in an awful long time.”) Later he admitted that he’d discussed the allegations with company execs (“I am the majority owner … I’m absolutely entitled to talk to the senior people … I’ve been doing that since I became mayor”). One of the last times a reporter asked him about the case, he lashed out, saying, “You’ll have to ask the company, and next time don’t bother to ask us a question.”
He’ll have to answer these questions under oath, however. When Bloomberg ran for office, and allegations surfaced of the discrimination and his obnoxious office talk, they didn’t make much of an impact. They were never proven and he rarely addressed them. Voters also seemed to understand that the business world could be like that. Today, Bloomberg is a politician, and what he says will be indicative of how he’s changed.
“It’s a minor variable that will only be effective if placed in the greater message of ‘Mike Bloomberg doesn’t feel your pain, and he doesn’t want to,’ ” says Baruch College professor Doug Muzzio. The question is whether his presumptive opponent, Bill Thompson, is capable of making that charge stick.