scorecardMike Bloomberg's foundation kept funding a $220 million global-health initiative after learning of sexual-harassment claims against one of the project's leaders
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Mike Bloomberg's foundation kept funding a $220 million global-health initiative after learning of sexual-harassment claims against one of the project's leaders

Daniel A. Gross   

Mike Bloomberg's foundation kept funding a $220 million global-health initiative after learning of sexual-harassment claims against one of the project's leaders
Finance8 min read
  • The foundation of ex-NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg continued to fund a global-health initiative after one of the project's leaders, Alan Lopez, was credibly accused of sexual harassment.
  • Lopez leads the University of Melbourne's work on the Bloomberg-funded Data for Health Initiative.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies has known for years about the existence of the sexual-harassment complaint.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization that has given away billions of dollars from the personal fortune of Michael R. Bloomberg, continued to fund a $220 million global-health initiative after learning of a sexual-harassment allegation against one of the project's leaders, the prominent global-health expert Alan Lopez, Insider has learned.

Ashley Frederes, who worked for the Bloomberg-funded nonprofit Vital Strategies, made a sexual-harassment complaint to the University of Melbourne, where Lopez is the chair of global health, in 2018.

The University of Melbourne and Vital Strategies are both partners in the Data for Health Initiative, a project to help low- and middle-income countries improve and standardize public-health data. It is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Australian government, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to his webpage at the University of Melbourne, Lopez, a globally recognized expert on public health and epidemiology whose work commands tens of millions of dollars in funding from major philanthropic institutions, helps steer the initiative.

Frederes told an independent workplace investigator hired by the university that during a 2015 work trip to Shanghai, Lopez invited her to a work meeting in his hotel room, tried to kiss her, touched her inappropriately, and blocked her from exiting the room. On different occasions, she said, he made inappropriate comments about her appearance and groped her in an elevator.

Lopez denied these allegations, but the investigator classified them in a September 2019 report reviewed by Insider as "on the balance of probabilities ... proven," and found that three other allegations from Frederes had elements that could be substantiated.

In October 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it would give the $100 million Data for Health Initiative, which is led in part by Lopez, an additional $120 million over four years. Its press release quoted Lopez alongside Mike Bloomberg and several other project partners.

Bloomberg Philanthropies would not say whether it was aware of the outcome of the investigation at the time of the announcement.

Bloomberg Philanthropies knew about the existence of the sexual-harassment complaint for years

The complaint and the workplace investigation were first reported by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, two affiliated Australian newspapers, in March 2021. Lopez told the papers that he denied the allegations, but he did not respond to multiple emails from Insider. His employer, the University of Melbourne, would not say whether it had taken any action against Lopez.

When Insider asked Bloomberg Philanthropies for comment, the organization said it had "just been apprised of the details regarding the sexual harassment claims by Ashley Frederes, and the related investigation."

But the Bloomberg-funded nonprofit that employed Frederes, Vital Strategies, told Insider that Bloomberg Philanthropies had known for years about the existence of the sexual-harassment complaint.

"Vital Strategies notified Bloomberg Philanthropies that a sexual harassment complaint was being filed and again when those allegations were substantiated," Christina Honeysett, a spokesperson for Vital Strategies, said in an email. Frederes filed her complaint in August 2018, and the University of Melbourne received the investigator's report in September 2019.

When Insider asked Bloomberg Philanthropies about this discrepancy, a spokesperson, Jean Weinberg, wrote, "To clarify, we did not know any details of the complaint made against Professor Lopez prior to their appearing in The Age."

Neither Honeysett nor Weinberg would say whether Vital Strategies identified Lopez when it first informed Bloomberg Philanthropies of the sexual-harassment complaint. "Specific details of Ms. Frederes' allegations were not disclosed due to the confidential nature of the University of Melbourne's investigation," Honeysett said. Weinberg said she did "not have a record of the precise date" that Bloomberg Philanthropies became aware that Lopez was the subject of Frederes' complaint.

Frederes said that in October or November 2019, a Vital Strategies vice president told her about a meeting with Bloomberg Philanthropies at which the report had been discussed. The vice president, who did not respond to a request for comment, said Lopez had been identified at the meeting, Frederes told Insider.

"We are not aware of any such meeting," Weinberg told Insider.

But Weinberg said that in late 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies asked the University of Melbourne for more information about the allegations and requested the report. The university declined, she said, and Bloomberg Philanthropies received "only the most general of information along with assurances from the University of Melbourne that appropriate action-based on university procedures-was being taken."

'The organization failed to protect me'

Since Frederes spoke out about her experience, Vital Strategies and Bloomberg Philanthropies have both voiced support for her.

"Vital Strategies supported Ms. Frederes and her participation in the ensuing investigation by the University of Melbourne," Honeysett said, adding that the organization expected the University of Melbourne to take disciplinary action. "She has shown tremendous courage by speaking publicly about what happened to her."

"We support Ashley Frederes speaking out and given what we know now, we are surprised that swifter and different action wasn't taken prior to this time," Bloomberg Philanthropies said in a statement.

But Frederes told Insider that Vital Strategies had missed earlier opportunities to support her. Though her employer helped her file her complaint and changed her work assignments to reduce her contact with Lopez, Frederes said, she still saw him at meetings and had to work with him on a regular basis while her complaint was being investigated. "I do think that the organization failed to protect me," she said, adding that her supervisor, Vital Strategies Vice President Philip Setel, did not participate in the investigation. Setel did not respond to an email from Insider.

"Vital Strategies is taking steps to strengthen our sexual harassment policies and procedures, and we are assessing additional measures to hold external partners accountable should an incident like this ever happen again," Honeysett said.

Frederes also said that Bloomberg Philanthropies failed to ensure that the recipient of its largesse was behaving professionally. Donors such as Bloomberg, she said, "have a responsibility to make sure that the individuals and the institutions that you're funding are behaving appropriately, are enforcing the policies that they have on their books and that are in law."

She said that she respected Bloomberg Philanthropies as a funder of important and often neglected public-health work. But she added, "I think they are responsible for continuing to fund Alan and the university after they were informed of the outcome of the investigation."

Frederes' account echoes an emerging consensus about the degree of oversight that donors should demand of their benefactors. In 2018, the UK-based Wellcome Trust made all its grants conditional on compliance with anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies. Wellcome, the largest philanthropic funder of health research in the world, revoked £3.5 million in grant funding from a cancer researcher after numerous colleagues accused her of bullying. It is also one of the funders listed on Lopez's webpage at the University of Melbourne.

At least three US federal government grantmakers - the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA - require institutions they fund to report sexual harassment by grant recipients. In 2018, NIH revoked funding for 14 scientists in response to sexual-harassment claims. "We want to be clear that NIH has not and will not just look the other way when accusations come to our attention," the agency said at the time.

The company that made Bloomberg rich has been plagued by sexual-harassment allegations

Michael Bloomberg and the company he founded have faced accusations going back decades of tolerating and promoting a crude, hostile work environment for women. Insider reported in 2019 that 64 workers had filed nearly 40 employment lawsuits against Bloomberg LP since 1996, a number that continues to rise. A lawyer for one accuser called the company a "reckless playground" for male senior executives to "target young, female, naive employees" for sex." Last year, an Insider investigation into allegations of a toxic work culture in Bloomberg's companies found allegations that Bloomberg himself derided women as "ugly" and "fat."

During his ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, Bloomberg denied charges of cultivating a sexist work culture. "I have no tolerance for the kind of behavior that the #MeToo movement has exposed," he said during a debate. "And anybody that does anything wrong in our company, we investigate it, and if it's appropriate, they're gone that day."

Bloomberg Philanthropies is overseen by Patricia Harris, a longtime Bloomberg LP executive and former mayoral aide who has been described by Politico as playing an "inextricable role" in "all facets" of Bloomberg's life. The charitable organization has employed dozens of people who previously worked for Bloomberg LP, according to employee LinkedIn profiles.

Bloomberg Philanthropies says it's weighing its future grantmaking decisions

Bloomberg Philanthropies has given about $23 million to the University of Melbourne since 2015, a spokesperson told Insider. In 2019 and 2020, according to nonprofit filings, it gave $5.85 million to support the university's work - led by Lopez - on Data for Health.

"We intend to discuss this situation with our partners to ensure that their values are aligned with ours and we will assess funding and grantmaking decisions accordingly," Bloomberg Philanthropies told Insider when asked about its financial support of Lopez and the university.

Even larger sums have gone to Vital Strategies, a nonprofit staffed in part by former health officials of Michael Bloomberg's mayoral administration in New York City. Over the years, Bloomberg Philanthropies has given the nonprofit hundreds of millions of dollars, of which tens of millions went to its work on Data for Health.

Bloomberg Philanthropies also gave multimillion-dollar grants to other Data for Health partner institutions, such as the CDC Foundation, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Johns Hopkins University, and the World Health Organization.

The University of Melbourne would not say whether it has taken any action against Lopez

After The Age published its story about the investigation, the University of Melbourne released a statement on its website that did not mention Lopez. "We remain committed to stamping out any sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from staff and students," Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell said.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson, Bruce Tobin, declined to say whether the university had taken any action against Lopez. "We will not be commenting on individual matters," Tobin said.

The University of Melbourne Student Union is circulating a petition that argues the university failed to follow its own zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault and harassment. "It looks more like a policy of zero action," the petition says.

A ripple effect across global-health institutions on 3 continents

In addition to his roles at the University of Melbourne, Lopez leads the Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance, or GRAM, project at the University of Oxford and is affiliated with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, known in the past year for its COVID-19 projections. The IHME is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We were notified of the situation last week," the Gates Foundation said in a statement to Insider. "We take sexual harassment very seriously. We understand the University of Washington, IHME's host organization, has initiated an investigation. We're in touch with UW and will determine what next steps are necessary."

"We are gathering information at this point," said Victor Balta, a spokesperson for the University of Washington, when asked about the investigation. Balta said that the university had learned of the allegations from The Sydney Morning Herald, adding that Lopez's unpaid appointment as an affiliate professor does not involve teaching.

The University of Oxford did not respond to questions about Lopez's leadership role on the GRAM project.

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