Rabbi Jonathan Klein Leaves CLUE Amid Allegations of Abuse; Calls Allegations ‘False’
After 10 years as executive director for the nonprofit Clergy & Laity for Economic Justice in Los Angeles, Rabbi Jonathan Klein resigned from the position last week amid allegations of sexual harassment and workplace abuse that earlier this year prompted an investigation into his alleged behavior. Klein has said the allegations against him are “false” and board members have called the allegations “absolutely untrue and not accurate.”
Klein has not provided a reason for his resignation. Board member Mary Ann Swensen said the organization — known by its acronym, CLUE — is going through a transition and “it became clear it was time for new leadership and to make a change, and so he resigned.”
The Journal interviewed seven current or former employees of CLUE — only one of whom allowed her name to be published — who described a pattern of sexual and workplace harassment by Klein. In interviews, they accused Klein of committing wage violations and inappropriately withholding pay, creating a “culture of chaos,” constantly threatening their job security, overworking them, making inappropriate sexual remarks and inappropriately touching female employees’ breasts and thighs.
Klein and CLUE’s board of directors have vigorously denied the allegations, and no reference was made to them in the official announcement of Klein’s resignation on Nov. 14.
“It is with deep appreciation for his leadership that after nearly ten years at CLUE, we wish Rabbi Jonathan Klein a warm farewell, as he departs from his role as Executive Director,” board chair Rev. Dr. Norman D. Copeland said in the announcement. “Rabbi Klein has tendered his resignation and is ready to pass the torch to new leadership as he seeks new pathways within the Jewish community and/or social justice world. We at CLUE wish him well and ask God to bless him on his journey.”
Swensen, a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, told the Journal that Klein officially tendered his resignation on Nov. 12 or 13, “but the board had been working with him for two or three weeks prior, on an appropriate agreement to facilitate his departure.”
The announcement of Klein’s resignation came 17 days after a letter signed by 10 CLUE clergy members was sent to the organization’s board, demanding Klein’s “immediate removal.”
“There has been a long pattern of mismanagement, including worker abuse that violates the mission of CLUE that we have been proud to uphold,” the letter states.
About two weeks after the letter was sent, at least four of the clergy members who signed the letter posted items on Facebook, complaining that the board had not responded to them.
“I cannot remain silent and be complicit. I must speak up for people who are not being treated with dignity, but rather as people who are unworthy,” CLUE member Janet Gollery McKeithen, president of the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council, said on Facebook. “I heard first hand, current and former employees of CLUE tell of allegations of sexual harassment and make claims of wage theft within that very organization.”
“The professional investigation cleared me of all wrongdoing and found no evidence of any misconduct.”
— Rabbi Jonathan Klein
CLUE comprises more than 900 religious and lay leaders of all faiths and describes its mission as fighting for the rights of immigrants, low-income workers and low-income families.
For a decade, Klein, 50, has been the organization’s face and voice. A tireless campaigner and charismatic speaker, he’s often been quoted and interviewed by local newspapers and appeared on television at numerous demonstrations. In June, he was among several faith leaders arrested as part of an act of civil disobedience outside the Federal building in Westwood, protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
In response to questions from the Journal, Klein issued a statement on Nov. 18 in which he thanked CLUE’s board of directors, cited his achievements and refuted the allegations made against him. In the statement, Klein referenced an investigation in March, conducted at the board’s direction, that he said exonerated him of alleged wrongdoing.
The text of the letter:
“After nearly ten years at CLUE and countless opportunities to organize for the well-being of disenfranchised and vulnerable people, I decided to resign from my role as Executive Director and did so on November 13th.
“During these deeply enriching years, CLUE grew into a full, experienced and diverse staff, in both Los Angeles and Orange County, with a budget nearly three times greater than when I arrived in early 2009.
“I leave with deep appreciation for CLUE’s board of Directors, who made my experience a blessing. I also want to thank the many varied and talented faith leaders who have joined me in this ten-year journey.
“Unfortunately, despite major accomplishments along the way, false allegations against me in a letter and then on social media appeared precisely as I was leaving CLUE.
“Earlier in the year when these allegations were leveled against me, CLUE did what was right and hired an independent investigator to explore the veracity of claims against me; the professional investigation cleared me of all wrongdoing and found no evidence of any misconduct.
“Since then, we continued our organizational development efforts to strengthen internal structures and procedures, to diversify leadership, and to allow our infrastructure to match our rapid advance in organizing.
“Nevertheless, I leave CLUE knowing that while the board of CLUE recognized my contributions, community members were misinformed as to what, precisely, is happening at CLUE.
“I am shocked, heartbroken, and dismayed by these false allegations, which are a repudiation of my values and counter to my lifelong commitment to treat others with dignity and respect. These allegations are not me and are intended to hurt both me and CLUE.”
“Regardless, as I leave, I have only wonderful things to say about CLUE and its valuable mission. I wish CLUE success in all its endeavors.”
Swensen also denied the accusations that Klein had been let go due to allegations of sexual harassment and workplace abuse and violations.
“They are absolutely not true and not accurate,” she said. “As the chair of the personnel committee, when there have been emerging conflicts in recent months, we’ve been managing those,” she said. “I think the board of directors has done due diligence and been faithful in its work and appropriate in its efforts and has managed its transition in the best possible way.”
When the Journal began reporting on Klein’s departure, Swensen was designated by the CLUE board to be its spokesperson, but on Nov. 18 the Journal was told that all inquiries should be directed to the organization’s attorney, Randy Renick. As of the Journal’s deadline, Renick had not responded to follow-up requests for comment and confirmation on elements of this report.
“For an organization to claim to care about workers, we were constantly made to feel like we were disposable and could be fired at any time.”
— Journal source
The Journal also left a phone message for the investigator, Curt Surls, asking for comment. He did not respond prior to press deadline.
Of the seven current or former employees interviewed by the Journal about Klein’s alleged sexual and workplace misconduct, six spoke on the condition they not be named, saying they feared reprisals.
Sarah Bedore, 22, agreed to speak openly about her experiences. Bedore started with CLUE as an intern in 2016 and was subsequently promoted to a fellow and then an organizer. She said she resigned in June due to Klein’s abuse and harassment, which she cited in a resignation letter — a copy of which she provided to the Journal.
Bedore said Klein made her uncomfortable with his repeated comments on her appearance, including her tattoos and earrings.
“He told me I didn’t fit the mold for a good Christian girl, even though I’m not Christian,” said Bedore, who identifies as Wiccan. “He would come up and stroke my earlobes. There were times where we’d be driving to an event in his car, where he reached across and touched my upper thigh.”
During one of those car rides, Bedore said, Klein initiated a conversation about her sexuality. “I identify as Lesbian and [Klein] asked me, because I’m gay or queer does that mean I am polyamorous and do I sleep with everyone?”
Bedore described another incident in which Klein hugged her inappropriately. “He embraced me and grabbed me really tight and rubbed his chest up against my [breasts],” and while stroking her back said, “ ‘Oh, this is a nice hug.’ ”
Bedore was one of six people who filed complaints of discrimination and/or sexual and workplace harassment by Klein with CLUE’s board in March. Bedore claimed one of the board members, Richard Zaldivar, said to her: “Well, this is a powerful organization and organizations can’t change overnight. Think of it this way: Donald Trump is in power and none of us like what he does, but he keeps the country going, so think of your boss as that — he keeps the organization going.”
Bedore said her early resignation in June was precipitated by the board’s refusal to take action against Klein. She said she also submitted a written request to see the results of the investigation into Klein but board members never responded to the request.
“I would have liked to have stayed [working at CLUE] and would have if the board had listened to us,” she said. “There were a few board members who stood with us as allies but they were either removed from the board or suddenly were no longer our allies.”
The other current or former employees who were sources for the Journal made consistent allegations of Klein making inappropriate, often sexual remarks, creating a hostile work environment and requiring them to work longer hours than allowed, at times without being paid or being underpaid.
When told of the allegations, Swensen said the board met with each person who made a complaint, placed Klein on leave and hired an investigator, who interviewed both the complainants and Klein. The investigator then presented a report to the board.
“The investigator’s report said the things [the employees] complained about in terms of sexual harassment did not rise to the level that would be able to carry it any further,” Swensen said.
However, following the investigation, Klein took “sexual harassment training and took his own initiative to learn where he might have said things that were offensive and he didn’t realize he said things that were offensive,” Swensen said.
While Klein was reinstated following the investigation, Swensen added, “at the same time, because of doing due diligence, the board made sure that the people who had trouble with him did not have to work with him; and we put in an additional leadership team and management team in place.”
The sources who spoke with the Journal confirmed the management shift that occurred after the investigation. “Following the sexual harassment allegations in April, a ‘buffer’ of two senior people was placed between Klein and the rest of the staff, and I was no longer able to communicate directly with him,” the person said.
One of the sources, a woman, who also alleged sexual harassment by Klein, said his behaviors were “systemic inappropriate comments over and over again or wielding his power. There was a sense of a dynamic on multiple levels where we felt he held power over us.” She said he also asked questions about nudity and body parts and touched women inappropriately. She declined to elaborate further, saying the specifics of her experiences would make her too easily identifiable.
“There were times where we’d be driving to an event in his car, where [Klein] reached across and touched my upper thigh.”
— Sarah Bedore
Asked in light of the allegations against Klein, the ensuing investigation, Klein’s sexual harassment training and workplace demeanor, did the board not question – irrespective of the outcome of the investigation – that it might be inappropriate to allow him to continue in his position, Swensen said, “There was really a mutual kind of conversation that was going on over time.” She said that included Klein saying, ‘Should I stay and work through the conflict or should I resign and do something else?’
Bedore and the other sources told the Journal they were receiving minimum wage and/or wages wildly inconsistent with both the level of work they were performing and the amount of hours they were required to put in.
Despite Bedore’s constant requests for a pay raise, she said, Klein refused. At one point when she asked for a raise, Bedore said, Klein allegedly closed his office door and responded, “Between you and me, how about I give you a private loan and it will just be something between the two of us?” Bedore said she refused. She added that at one point Klein allegedly asked her, “Well, don’t your parents pay for everything?” Eventually, Bedore said she received an 83-cents-an-hour raise.
The third source said Klein would text and call her nonstop, even asking her, “Are you even working?” At one point when she was in a meeting, she said, “I burst into tears and had to leave the meeting because [Klein] wouldn’t stop texting me and refused to believe I was actually at work.”
She also said Klein’s leadership at CLUE “for him was about being in front of cameras and being a public figure. He wanted to make sure the name of the organization was in the spotlight at the cost of everything else.” She added, “But we’re not in this for fame. We’re in this for justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized people.”
Other fears plagued employees, including constant threats allegedly made by Klein about their positions. One of the sources said, “We were constantly told our position could be defunded at any time, so there was this constant sense that we had to work these crazy hours. We had to carry multiple campaigns if we wanted full-time work. For an organization to claim to care about workers, we were constantly made to feel like we were disposable and could be fired at any time.”
The fourth source concurred, adding, “Everyone was so stressed out. People were constantly getting sick and missing days. Turnover was high. There was one point where someone was so worried about their job they started having heart palpitations but still went to a [work event] rather than pulling over and going to the hospital.”
The fifth source said it took her five months to receive a promised wage increase and then she had to be paid retroactively.
“The investigator’s report said the things [the employees] complained about in terms of sexual harassment did not rise to the level that would be able to carry it any further.”
— Mary Ann Swensen
The sixth source spoke of having to file a grievance for unpaid wages after being hired part-time but being given a full-time workload. She said, “I kept track of all my work and showed it to my supervisor. Everyone agreed it was full-time work.”
However, after she asked Klein to either reduce her workload or pay her a full-time salary, she said Klein did not do so for almost four months. She added that she never met with Klein alone because she had “heard rumors” about his behavior, that he was “creepy,” and she said she “didn’t feel safe” around him.
The third source, who worked in the Orange County office, spoke of Klein running CLUE in “a culture of chaos,” particularly following the merger of the organization’s Orange County and Los Angeles offices in 2016.
“It became a huge issue,” she said, “and he was the only person with decision-making power. I quickly realized that if you were nice to him and on his team you’d get whatever you wanted: raises, promotions, time off.”
She spoke of a workplace environment where Klein “would isolate us all and not let us meet as a group — we always had to meet with him individually.” On the rare occasions there were group meetings, she said, he would never honor the things discussed.
After the merger with the Orange County office and having to take on more responsibility, she said, she did not receive a raise despite repeated requests. Despite documenting all her work, she alleged Klein would always say he didn’t know what work she was doing. “When we lost funding from an important donor, [Klein] became very upset and blamed everyone else,” she said. “He told me I didn’t understand my position or my work within the organization.”
She said she reached out to board members “who listened but there was no action and [Klein] retaliated against me. He pushed me further down in the organization and I wasn’t even allowed to be a voice at the decision-making table, despite being in a senior position.”
Regarding the multiple allegations against Klein, Swensen said, “We engaged in a full 360 evaluation where staff and volunteers and partners and the board all participated.” She said there was an ongoing plan to work with Klein following those evaluations “and was certainly important based on the criticism.” Ultimately though, she said it became “clear it was time for new leadership and to make a change and so he resigned.”
The sentiment echoed by many upon hearing of Klein’s departure was one of relief, but that the board’s letter didn’t go far enough.
The sixth source said, “My reaction was ‘great,’ but the messaging that was carried out by the board — wishing [Klein] a warm farewell, does not really acknowledge and even dismisses [our] pain.”
The fourth source said, “CLUE’s statement to me showed the tone deafness of the board but also felt like a legal statement they had to make, with no real awareness of the deep pain caused in the community.” He added, “The thing that is so problematic is that CLUE is this beautiful intersection of faith and political action and there’s not very many places within the community to be able to act out these values.”
He said he believed that’s why the issues surrounding Klein had taken so long to come to light.
“This has been allowed to go on a lot longer than at other organizations, he said. “We did everything we could internally but the board was interested in the photo-ops and not interested in oversight and what was happening at the organization. My big hope is that [Klein] does some soul searching and he comes out of this with some sense of remorse.”
The third source said she was angry that the board’s letter was couched to look as though it was Klein’s decision to leave.
“This was a decision that came from everyone,” she said. “The board was pushed to have him resign. So for me, the board has a lot of action to take. They’re not holding themselves or Jonathan accountable for the damage he’s done to so many staff. … Now that he’s gone, I am happy, because otherwise I don’t think our stories and our pain would have been made public.”
Bedore said she was “frustrated” by the letter that offered “deep appreciation” to Klein for his 10 years at CLUE. “We had requested he resign immediately back in April, and to see that letter saying it was a resignation when it wasn’t — and [Klein] was a perpetrator of both evil and violence — was both invalidating and silencing for me,” she said.
Swensen said there had been so much confusion regarding what really happened surrounding Klein’s departure.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Swensen said. “It’s sad because it will be harmful for everyone in terms of an agency that’s trying to do good work in the community. Ultimately, I hope we can get past it and continue to do good work in the community.”
Here is the full text of the Oct. 28 letter from 10 clergy members to the CLUE board:
Dear board Members of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice;
We are members of the CLUE community who are deeply alarmed by learning of allegations of sexual harassment, wage violations, mismanagement, and worker abuse of CLUE staff by Executive Director, Jonathan Klein.
We have read the detailed April 23, 2018 letter signed by all CLUE staff, which was never fully answered by the board of Directors. We have heard horrifying first-hand testimonies by current and former staff members, six of whom filed complaints in March, 2018, that were mostly dismissed by a limited investigation. Lastly, we are disturbed that you reinstated the director under the cloud of legitimate grievances. This action on your part led to severe physical and mental distress among the entire staff.
There has been a long pattern of mismanagement, including worker abuse that violates the mission of CLUE that we have been proud to uphold. This pattern includes wage theft complaints, concrete examples of which include consistently late paychecks, broken agreements regarding hours and conditions of employment, etc.
To our knowledge, this mismanagement has also resulted in a loss of funder/donor confidence demonstrated by the pulling of multiple sources of funding including the Pacific Presbytery.
Please be reminded that nonprofit boards of directors have a fiduciary responsibility for Duty of Care to actively promote and support the mission and goals of the organization and its finances; Duty of Loyalty to the organization above the directors’ own interests; and Duty of Obedience to all applicable laws and regulations. boards of Directors are collectively and individually legally liable if they do not carry out their fiduciary duties. Clearly you have not put the mission (Creating a Just and Sacred Society), goals, and financial interests first in your decision making.
Legal actions can be brought against you by staff members, any organizations that have a relationship with CLUE, including other nonprofits and donors, beneficiaries, the State Attorney General, or other government officials, including the US Department of Labor.
We conclude that based on the first-hand testimonies we have heard, the evidence of serious staff turnover and resignations, and the loss of funding which is occurring, we are left with no choice but to demand the immediate removal of Jonathan Klein by unanimous vote from his position as Executive Director.
We expect action on this matter within the next week, and are prepared to protect current staff from any illegal retaliation that might result. In the event of continued inaction, we are prepared to share our concerns with donors, partners, volunteers, and the wider public, and to seek advice regarding legal action.
“My big hope is that [Klein] does some soul searching and he comes out of this with some sense of remorse.”
— Journal source
We strongly believe in the mission and work of CLUE Justice. We believe even more strongly in the amazing work and efforts of the staff members, volunteers and allies. Because of this, we know the work of justice will continue, with or without CLUE. We cannot continue to ignore the injustice that is occurring at the hands of the board and the Executive Director of CLUE, who claim to be working for the very rights and dignity upon which they are trampling.
Signed, Roberta Wall, Deacon in San Clemente Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Cathleen Deppe, Coordinator, Justice & Mercy Commission, Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Inglewood, CA
Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen, Minister, Church in Ocean Park and President of the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council
Rev. Melinda Teter Dodge, Pastor, Family Ministries Los Altos United Methodist Church
Rev. Linda L. Culbertson, General Presbyter, Presbytery of the Pacific
Daryl J. Forman, Santa Monica CLUE, St. Paul Lutheran Church
Ann Burdette, Sanctuary Ministry, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA
Erica and Robert Romero, Co-founders, Jesus 4 Revolutionaries
Andrew Moss, Temple Isaiah, West Los Angeles; CLUE-Santa Monica
Rev. John Forrest Douglas, Associate Minister, First Congregational Church of Long Beach, United Church of Christ
Here is the text of the Facebook post by Rev. Janet Golley McKeithen, president of the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council:
“I cannot remain silent and be complicit. I must speak up for people who are not being treated with dignity, but rather as people who are unworthy. It has been my honor to work together with the CLUE organization for many years. With their commitment to justice for all peoples, with their capacity to bring peoples of many and no faiths together, striving for justice throughout our cities and communities. But I will no longer be a part of CLUE until there are big changes. I heard first hand, current and former employees of CLUE tell of allegations of sexual harassment and make claims of wage theft within that very organization. I, along with other clergy and laity who heard these stories, sent a letter (the text is below) to the board of CLUE. We have had no official response. CLUE needs to be restored and restructured with new leadership that creates a space where workers are honored, respected, and treated with human dignity. I am ready to walk with my comrades (Staff & board) to bring accountability and help rebuild the organization.
“Death is terrifying, but Resurrection is sweeter.” #restoreCLUE”
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