On the day that eventual Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate about allegations that he had sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in high school, his longtime friend and a groomsman at his wedding was sitting two rows back. That friend was Joel Kaplan, the vice president of global public policy at Facebook and a former official in the George W. Bush administration.
Hundreds of Facebook employees took to the company’s internal message boards to express outrage and argued that Kaplan’s appearance was implicitly taking Kavanaugh’s side in the assault allegations. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a town hall that he wouldn’t have made the same decision to attend but that Kaplan didn’t violate any company policies, while COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted that Kaplan’s appearance was a mistake. Kaplan also apologized in a note to staff and said at the town hall that he regretted not consulting Zuckerberg and Sandberg before the hearing.
Nevertheless, Kaplan persisted in celebrating his friend. The following week, he threw a private party at his home for people who worked on the nomination; Kavanaugh and his wife “stopped by” according to Politico. Kaplan also attended Kavanaugh’s public swearing-in ceremony on Monday, October 8, 2018.
Sandberg addressed Kaplan’s “personal and professional activities” on an internal message board, which is excerpted below. This story is based on Frances Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including Jezebel.
Sandberg reiterated that Kaplan’s presence at the hearings was a mistake because “it unnecessarily injected Facebook into a contentious national debate,” and said that while Kaplan didn’t tell her or Zuckerberg about attending the Senate hearing, he did let them know about the party and swearing-in ceremony, and they “support his decision to participate.” “Participate” is a strange way of saying “plan and host a party at your own home,” but I digress!
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These actions were totally fine, Sandberg wrote, because Kavanaugh was already confirmed at that point:
“For the company, we see a distinction between attending a controversial public hearing about sexual assault on the one hand which we agree was a mistake, on the other hosting a gathering at your home and attending a swearing-in ceremony for a confirmed Justice and close personal friend.”
Unsurprisingly, many Facebook employees did not agree and noted that rank-and-file workers would be fired for much less—the problem being, essentially, that Facebook was hypocritically giving Kaplan the kind of pass for being a powerful white man that Congress had given Kavanaugh. Sandberg also said that “we can be a workplace where everyone - survivors, people with conservative and liberal political views, and people who don’t want to discuss social issues - feel safe and empowered to do their work.”
The post received 577 comments, which span 73 pages of the document (though there are digressions on whether Dr. Ford should be believed and whether opting out of discussions on “social issues” at work is a marker of privilege). Some highlights include:
“Wait, how is attending the hearing a mistake, but attending a public swearing-in ceremony is not? Aren’t they both unnecessarily injecting Facebook into a contentious national debate?”
“I’ve never read something from leadership that rung so hollow...Why do you draw a false dichotomy between a crushing symbolic moment and supporting a friend? I’ve had friends with serious problems and the way I support them is by helping them be a better person - not throwing them a kegger when they make bail.”
“I personally would have rather Joel Kaplan not spoken at all at the town hall and delivered something adjacent to an apology at all. If he’s not sorry (as attending the swearing in suggests), that’s none of my business, but it feels like speaking there was a wast of time for both the attendees and for Joel himself.”
“I can’t help but feel like we are going easy on him because we are excited to have an executive who is best friends with a Supreme Court nominee. It just feels gross.”
“[Kaplan] knows he can’t be fired because of how it would reflect on the company, so essentially he is free to do what he wants.”
“Isn’t Joel our head government person? How is fb’s top government person [showing] up at a government hearing or confirmation a ‘personal’ thing? We’re all asked to “focus on impact and to measure, so what is wrong about the company asking what the impact of these actions are? If a fb engineer wrote code for a friend’s business that had a negative impact on Facebook that engineer would (and should) be held accountable by Facebook.”
In the fall of 2018, Facebook and other tech companies faced scrutiny for allegedly suppressing conservative viewpoints. Sandberg herself testified before Congress on the topic a few weeks before Kavanaugh was confirmed.