As Bernard A. Tolbert ramps up his Democratic primary election campaign for mayor of Buffalo, he touts an impressive résumé with titles such as senior vice president of security for the National Basketball Association.
But Tolbert’s eight-year stint at NBA headquarters in Manhattan also spawns one of the few question marks hanging over his record – a pair of lawsuits hinging on an accusation that the league ignored repeated warnings that female employees were victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The candidate emphasizes he has never been personally accused of any inappropriate behavior, and he denies all such accusations.
But while chief of NBA security, he was named in a lawsuit for making demeaning comments about women and passing over a female employee for promotion that the league confidentially settled rather than fight – over Tolbert’s strenuous objections.
Now the candidate faces a second lawsuit in which another former league security official alleges he was fired for defending the woman claiming discrimination. Still another suit by another former league security official – a woman – alleges that Tolbert did nothing to investigate an act of sexual harassment she says was initiated by Geno Auriemma, coach of the famed University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, on a 2009 trip to Russia sponsored by USA Basketball in conjunction with the NBA.
The candidate is not named as a defendant in the third suit.
Tolbert, a 22-year veteran of the FBI who once headed its Buffalo office, said he has never acted in the way he is accused throughout a long professional and volunteer career.
“My mother would kill me,” he said an interview with The Buffalo News. “If you look at my entire history as a social worker, with Cradle Beach Camp or with the FBI, you’ll not find I said anything bad about women.”
Nevertheless, the campaign of Mayor Byron W. Brown is expected to make the accusations a centerpiece of its re-election effort.
“Clearly, there is an issue with the way he treats women, and we’re going to talk about it,” Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey said, alleging that Tolbert left the NBA in 2010 because of the situation – an accusation that Tolbert denies.
“It’s the NBA; you don’t leave that unless it’s for a good reason,. There was a settlement, and that’s a problem.”
Randolph M. McLaughlin of the Manhattan law firm Newman & Ferrara, is leading the still-active lawsuit on behalf of Warren Glover, the former NBA security official who says he was fired after backing the woman who alleged harassment and after submitting a deposition on the woman’s behalf in her suit against the league.
A former lieutenant commander in the New York Police Department, Glover joined the NBA in 2001 and worked for Tolbert. But McLaughlin said Glover ran afoul of the future mayoral candidate when he brought the concerns of Annette Smith – who initiated the now-settled suit – to Tolbert.
Smith, another employee of the league’s security department, contended she was ordered to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for rookies that featured images of an obese woman on top of a man. She complained in her suit about such actions, as well as comments Tolbert allegedly made that included what she called inappropriate jokes. One example, she said, was a Tolbert joke in which he allegedly said women are needed in only two rooms of the house – the kitchen and the bedroom.
Tuesday, Tolbert denied ever making that remark.
“That’s not the person I am,” he said. “I challenge you to find someone who says I’m that kind of person.”
Smith also said she was denied any chance for promotion.
McLaughlin explained the PowerPoint image was copied for a presentation to rookies on how to behave.
“One of the PowerPoint presentations was ‘This is what happens when you get drunk – some big, fat woman will be on top of you semi-naked,’ ” he said. “This led Annette Smith to say, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ ”
Now, McLaughlin said, Glover is paying the price for defending Smith and opposing a top league official.
“Mr. Glover has a great job, loves his job, comes out of the Police Department, and believes he’s doing the right thing,” McLaughlin said of his client. “He believes what he has seen is inappropriate and takes those concerns to Bernie Tolbert. But rather than bring it to Human Resources, Mr. Tolbert asks, ‘Why are you bringing this to me?’ ”
He called the league office an “old-boys club” that fostered a “culture of misogyny” and a habit of “tolerating and sweeping under the rug” such instances as alleged in the suit.
“He was singled out, punished and ultimately fired,” McLaughlin said of Glover. “It started with Bernie Tolbert’s insensitivity to the plight of women in his shop.”
In a Tuesday telephone interview from New York City with The News, Glover said Smith complained to him that she felt demeaned when asked to prepare the PowerPoint presentation, that she was upset and that he asked Tolbert not to show it.
“I told him I did not think it was appropriate to show that to any rookie players or any man or anyone,” he said. “He said, ‘I don’t see a problem’ and showed it.”
Tolbert said Tuesday that he never thought anyone would be offended and that the picture was “facetious” and designed to drive home a point about personal behavior with “19- and 20-year-olds.”
“I would never knowingly offend anyone,” he said.
Glover said he never felt that he was “sticking up for” Smith in his deposition on her suit.
“I was called to testify in the deposition, and I did so honestly,” he said. “It’s not about sticking up for Annette Smith; it’s about telling the truth.”
Glover said that the situation got “tougher and tougher” for him at the NBA following his deposition, until he was finally fired.
“When he reported this up the chain of command,” McLaughlin said, “he became persona non grata and a sacrificial lamb.”
The attorney said he is discussing the litigation as the Buffalo mayoral campaign heats up because of the possibility Tolbert could someday be leading the state’s second-largest city. “If that’s the way he treats women in the office, and if he gets to run a vast administration, how sensitive will he be to women working in his office?” McLaughlin asked.
Tolbert, 65, emphasized that the Smith suit was settled with no admission of guilt or wrongdoing. He said he objected then and still objects to the settlement.
“Because it wasn’t right,” he said. “There was no wrongdoing. I was opposed because it might cause others to file frivolous lawsuits. In principle, it was wrong.”
Tolbert said he understood that the litigation was settled at the recommendation of the league’s insurance carriers. “I wasn’t consulted,” he said.
Tolbert acknowledges he now understands that Smith was “traumatized” by the images of the PowerPoint presentation but that it was never discussed at the time.
“Clearly, if she had said, ‘Bernie, I don’t like this; don’t like that,’ we would have discussed it,” he said. “She never said she was traumatized by the picture.”
The candidate also denied any suggestion that the lawsuits prompted his decision to leave his high-profile job with the NBA, calling his departure a “joint decision.”
“My original plan was to stay five years and then call it a day,” he said. “I stayed over eight years.”