By:
June 30, 2021

Mike Elk, founder of the labor-focused publication Payday Report, sued the NewsGuild Monday, alleging he faced retaliation after he notified the union of sexual misconduct allegations against one of its leaders.

While reporting on sexual harassment in the Service Employees International Union in 2019, Elk received a tip from a woman who alleged that then-president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, Michael Fuoco, sexually harassed her. Elk, a member of the NewsGuild at the time, notified union leaders of the tip and urged them to investigate.

The NewsGuild leaders attacked Elk instead, the lawsuit complaint alleges.

The lawsuit, which Elk filed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, names five defendants: Communications Workers of America, the parent union of the NewsGuild and its Pittsburgh local; NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss; Pittsburgh NewsGuild delegate Zack Tanner; Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild president Fatima Hussein; and former Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild president Steve Cook.

Elk writes in his complaint that the defendants defamed him, damaging his personal and professional reputations and causing him to lose business opportunities. He also alleges they broke confidentiality agreements regarding the sexual misconduct claims against Fuoco and intentionally inflicted “emotional distress.”

Tanner and Hussein both denied the allegations against them, and Schleuss called the lawsuit “completely frivolous.” Cook also denounced the complaint as “completely baseless” and wrote in an email that he expects to be “fully vindicated” in court. CWA communications director Beth Allen declined to comment.

“The allegations in this lawsuit are patently untrue. The filing is riddled with errors and contradictions,” Hussein wrote in an emailed statement. “I look forward to this issue being resolved in a court of law.”

Elk first reached out to NewsGuild leadership about the tip he had received in December 2019. Over the course of 2020, he communicated with Schleuss multiple times, demanding that the union investigate Fuoco.

In August 2020, NewsGuild leaders assured Elk that any information he provided would be kept confidential, according to the complaint. Elk gave them some information about the allegations, which he says the union later made public in a letter circulated among members.

NewsGuild leaders also defamed and harassed him, Elk alleges. For example, the complaint states that in September 2020, Schleuss told Fuoco “everything was fine because everyone knows that Elk is insane and has a vendetta against the Guild.” Elk, who is autistic, says the NewsGuild has tried to portray him as mentally unstable. The quote also appeared in a December 2020 New York Times story about the allegations against Fuoco. Schleuss told the Times that he didn’t recall the details of that conversation.

The New York Times report identified three former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalists who said Fuoco had sexually harassed them and two of his former journalism students who said he pressured them into sexual relationships. One woman cited in the story called Fuoco the city’s Harvey Weinstein. Fuoco told the Times that the sexual misconduct allegations against him are “false.”

The report’s author, Ben Smith, noted in the story that he found several of the women after an “afternoon’s phone calls.”

The NewsGuild didn’t act on the allegations until September 2020, when one of Fuoco’s former journalism students called Schleuss. He briefed the CWA chief of staff and the Pittsburgh local executive committee, and by the next day, Fuoco had resigned from his union leadership position.

Elk further alleges that he was sent a threatening email and physically assaulted. The NewsGuild’s actions have caused Elk to miss 20 days of work and given him fits of PTSD, according to the complaint. He also alleges that his reputation has been tarnished, causing him to lose credibility and standing.

“They treat anyone who questions or has a different idea as an adversary, and they attack them,” Elk said. “And that’s part of the reason why we’re filing the suit, which is that we want to call out this behavior, and we want to create space within the NewsGuild where people can feel comfortable.”

This story was updated July 1.

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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