Warren did not let up. “What we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there,” she said. “He has gotten some number of women — dozens, who knows — to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?”
The sharp exchange came as Bloomberg faces growing scrutiny about whether he has made profane and sexist comments to women. His history of such alleged comments was outlined in a recent Washington Post report that disclosed an array of new details. His responses Wednesday reflected an awkwardness that has not been evident in the numerous television ads he has aired showing him as a can-do leader.
Bloomberg also played down the alleged offenses involved. “None of them accuse me of anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said, eliciting an audible gasp from the audience.
Bloomberg said there were “very few nondisclosure agreements” but declined to say exactly how many existed.
While Bloomberg and his campaign previously have said he would not release ex-employees from the nondisclosure agreements, his refusal to do so during his first appearance on a Democratic presidential debate stage is likely to heighten attention on the allegations and on what is contained in the agreements.
The highest-profile agreement was signed by a former top saleswoman, Sekiko Sakai Garrison. She alleged that when Bloomberg learned in 1995 that she was pregnant, he said “kill it,” allegedly referring to the pregnancy and advocating an abortion.
Garrison said in her suit that she asked Bloomberg to repeat his comment, and he did.
Bloomberg, who denied making the remark, has declined to release his deposition in the Garrison case. He said in a separate deposition to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the allegation by Garrison was “ridiculous.”
The Post interviewed a former Bloomberg employee, David Zielenziger, who said he heard Bloomberg ask Garrison, “Are you going to kill it?” Zielenziger, who had not previously spoken publicly about the matter, said he found the comment “outrageous. I understood why she took offense.”
It is not clear whether Garrison wants to be released from the confidentiality agreement. She has not responded to requests for comment. The Post reported on Saturday that she sought $5 million in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages, and that the settlement was in the six figures.
In her lawsuit, Garrison also alleged that Bloomberg regularly made sexist and profane statements. She said that when Bloomberg noticed her near a group of people having their photograph being taken, he asked her: “Why didn’t they ask you to be in the picture? I guess they saw your face.”
Garrison also alleged that when Bloomberg learned that a salesman was getting married, he said to a group of saleswomen: “All of you girls line up to give him [oral sex] as a wedding present.”
Bloomberg on Wednesday argued that he was a champion of women, saying the executive who runs his foundation is a woman, as are 70 percent of its employees, and that women hold prominent jobs in his company.
“I have no tolerance for the kind of behavior that the #MeToo movement has exposed,” Bloomberg said.
Warren told the audience, “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it.”
Warren also said Bloomberg’s refusal to release former employees from the agreements was not just a matter of character.
“This is also a question about electability,” the senator from Massachusetts said. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”
Former vice president Joe Biden joined in, saying that the agreements arose when Bloomberg agreed to pay women in exchange for silence and that there is no obstacle to his withdrawing his insistence that they not talk.
“It’s easy,” Biden said. “All the mayor has to do is say, ‘You are released from the nondisclosure.’ ”
Bloomberg also faced attacks Wednesday for statements attributed to him in a 1990 booklet prepared by a top staffer, titled “The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg.”
Warren, while not citing her source, said that Bloomberg had referred to “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians.” Bloomberg’s spokesman has denied that he made statements quoted in the 32-page booklet.