Disgraced ex-BofA exec raises uncomfortable questions about #MeToo

Bethany McLean
Contributor
Omeed Malik speaking at the SALT conference in May 2017.  REUTERS/Richard Brian/File Photo

When Omeed Malik, an executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, was fired at the start of 2018, he quickly became the poster child for #MeToo on Wall Street.

He seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Malik is 38 years old and had a high-profile social life—he summered in the Hamptons and even had a cameo on “Billions,” the hit show about the hedge fund world. And amid the world of finance, which has been mostly silent on #MeToo, of course Malik stood out. His name was lumped in on lists that included Harvey Weinstein and Steve Wynn, and his story went viral. “When 38-year-old managing directors allegedly abuse 20-something analysts,” was the headline on an efinancialcareers.com piece.

Now Malik has become one of the first casualties of #MeToo to refuse to slink away quietly. Last week, he filed a claim with FINRA, the regulatory body where most securities industry disputes are heard, alleging, among other things, that BofA defamed him, and seeking $100 million in damages. While FINRA arbitrations are confidential, Malik’s lawyer, John Singer of Singer Deutsch, has provided some detail around the legal claims. Bank of America says that it “stands by its decision to terminate Mr. Malik. His claims are without merit, and we will defend ourselves in this matter.”

Questions about fairness

Those claims, which are the backbone of Malik’s version of events, certainly don’t tell the whole story either. There are sources who declined to speak, and BofA wouldn’t go into the detail that it no doubt will in its own legal responses. Nor can Malik’s claims sit outside the larger context of Wall Street, which has a history of silencing and shaming women who speak up, and of protecting men who have been accused. It’s vital to make the process fair to women, because for so long, it has not been fair at all.

At the same time, Malik’s version of the story, although it may yet turn out to be very flawed, still raises uncomfortable questions that also apply to the #MeToo movement as a whole. Does fairness to women inevitably risk unfairness to men—and in this case, to bystanders, one male and one female, who say they were fired simply for telling the truth? Is there any danger that Wall Street, instead of using #MeToo as an impetus for broad cultural change, instead is applying it selectively and punitively?

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 12: (L-R)Anthony Scaramucci and Omeed Malik Attend The 2017 Common Good Forum at University Club on May 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for The Common Good)

For most of his career, Malik was a star. The New Jersey born middle-class son of an Iranian woman and a Pakistani father, he’d spent his early career as a lawyer before joining former Goldman CEO Jon Corzine in his ultimately disastrous mission at MF Global. In 2012, Malik went to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, known as BAML, to work in the business known as prime brokerage, which offers services like margin loans to hedge funds. He started at the director level, but by creating successful programs like one that brought in promising new hedge fund managers, he rose quickly. He was promoted to managing director in 2013, soon ran the prime brokerage sales business, and then in the spring of 2016 was promoted again to Global Head of Capital Introduction.   

Dynamics inside prime brokerage division

Malik’s claim, essentially, is that internal politics, rather than sexual harassment, are the real reason he was fired. That sounds like a convenient conspiracy theory. And yet, his claims and some comments by others close to events do allege some unpleasant and odd dynamics at BofA’s prime brokerage division.

In the spring of 2014, Malik’s mentor, Stu Hendel, was pushed out. In the ensuing years, there was near constant turnover in the leadership of the global prime brokerage group. Former employees say those who found themselves on the wrong side of a new regime didn’t fare well.

In the summer of 2014, Singer says that Malik was questioned by the bank’s employee relations division about his interaction with a female employee (who did not report to him) and who had complained about him. Singer says the claim was false, and that the employee in question was on what is known internally as an RIF, or reduction in force list, meaning she was about to be laid off. Malik was presented with a letter saying he had engaged in inappropriate behavior by “socializing with a junior colleague.”

He refused to sign it, and when it came time for his performance review, the issue was not mentioned, says Singer. It didn’t affect his bonus, either. It just disappeared. “In 25 years of practicing employment law, I’ve never seen a warning letter not be mentioned in a performance review,” says Singer.

Three years later, in the spring of 2017, Martina Slowey, a London-based longtime BofA executive, became Malik’s ultimate boss. Allegedly, it was not a healthy relationship. Slowey once referred to Malik as “Borat,” a former employee says, while Malik complained to both BofA’s legal and compliance people that Slowey did not have any of the necessary securities licenses that were required to be in her role or manage U.S.-based employees. (Slowey’s name does not show up in FINRA’s database, where securities industry professionals with those licenses can be found.) Internally, Malik was listed as the supervisor of people he didn’t actually supervise, says Singer; in his year-end self evaluation, Malik also complained about this issue.

BofA would not comment on the allegation that Slowey called Malik “Borat,” but it did say, “The bank had the appropriate regulatory structure at all times.”

In both 2014 and again in the fall of 2017, Malik was nominated for BAML’s diversity and inclusion award. In early 2016, Tom Montag, Bank of America’s chief operating officer, wrote him a letter of recommendation for the Council on Foreign Relations. “Omeed is a promising young executive and is well-regarded by his colleagues and clients,” Montag wrote.

Termination over the phone

Just after winter break, on January 3, 2018, Malik was called to meet with several employee relations representatives, Singer says. Most of the questioning focused on events that had taken place on a night three weeks earlier—December 13.

The prime brokerage business is, by its nature, a highly social one, where people often do business over drinks. Malik’s group, based on party photos and the events at hand, seems to have been no exception.

December 13 was not a night involving an official bank function. It began with a gift exchange (which wasn’t organized by Malik) and then moved to another venue. At the end of the evening, Malik and another male employee quietly split off and went to Et Al, a trendy lounge on the Lower East Side where Malik was known to hang out, say three people familiar with events.

They were soon joined by handful of BofA employees from the previous venue. Malik shared a cab home with one young analyst, and after dropping her off, got a late-night snack. The employee relations representatives did not ask Malik about any specific allegation of wrongdoing, says Singer, and it is unclear if this analyst complained. (She did not return a LinkedIn request to talk about events.)

During the cab ride, another analyst who was also at Et Al texted the young woman who was with Malik, asking her if she was OK. Malik knows that because the young woman showed him the text, Singer asserts.

On Friday, January 5, others were also called by the employee relations team to discuss the events of the night at Et Al. They included Joe Voboril, whom Malik had hired at BAML, and Valerie Ludorf, a young Wellesley graduate who had worked at the bank for four years, in addition to spending several summers there. Both told their questioners they had seen nothing inappropriate.

On Monday, January 8 they were called in again. Both Voboril and Ludorf felt the message they got was that they were risking their careers if they didn’t change their stories. A colleague Ludorf confided in also says she was asked a series of deeply personal questions that seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Both reiterated that they had seen nothing inappropriate.

One told a former colleague that the employee relations people repeatedly referred to Malik as “Omar.”

On January 9, Malik, who had been told not to come into the office, was fired via a phone call. All his deferred comp was taken away, as well as the bonus he’d been informally told he would receive. (Malik, despite being called “powerful” in the press, was not a high earner by Street standards. His salary was less than $500,000, and he’d been told his bonus would be just about $1 million.) He was never told specifically what it was he was being accused of doing, Singer says.

“Investment banks are routinely inclined to say absolutely nothing to employees upon termination in instances where there is no causal or cognizable basis for termination, as the case with Mr. Malik,” says Singer.

By that time, of course, Malik had hired a lawyer. He and the bank agreed upon a press release, which said simply that he had left to pursue other opportunities. The Wall Street Journal reported that news on January 11, and about a week later, Reuters added that Malik was also planning to launch his own firm—which would compete with BofA.

‘Unwanted advances toward female colleagues’

A source says that at least one BofA employee who was unhappy about the generic description of Malik’s departure began to call reporters to complain. On the 19th, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ran stories about Malik. The Times piece said a young female banker had accused him of “inappropriate sexual conduct.” Citing “people at the bank who were briefed on the investigation,” they wrote that the bank’s human resources department had “interviewed as many as a dozen people.” The Journal also reported Malik had made “unwanted advances toward female colleagues and engaged in relationships with female subordinates,” citing “people familiar with the matter.”

In a world where women who are labeled as complainers are rightly terrified of the career repercussions, it’s obvious why women don’t want to see their names, or even their anonymous stories, in the press. It’s quite possible that the generic phrases, as problematic as they are, mask even more serious and serial misconduct by Malik. And there’s real concern about men scooting off into their next high-paying job, consequence-free.

At the same time, the non-specific, second-hand nature of the accusations against Malik is very different from the detailed, first-hand accounts of long-running predations that have brought down other men. There is no way for someone to defend against such accusations, either publicly or privately, other than with an unsatisfying blanket denial. (Singer, for his part, says the charges are defamatory and untrue.)

There may be other troubling aspects. Singer assumes, based on the questioning of Malik and others, that the initial complaint against Malik must have come from the night at Et Al. But the Journal piece was the first Malik had heard about the broader allegations against him, he says. Singer also argues that given the sourcing and the details about the investigation, like the number of people who were interviewed, at least some of the allegations had to have been leaked not merely by a gossipy colleague, but by someone who had high-level access. BofA declined to comment on the notion that there was any leaking.

According to the Bank of America Employee Handbook, leave of absence information and termination reasons are considered “confidential employee information” which is “private in nature and intended for limited disclosure on a need-to-know basis.”

The consequences for Malik were enormous. A company that had made him a job offer rescinded it. He was asked to resign from the board of a non-profit at which he’d served for almost a decade.

‘It should also be safe to say you didn’t see anything’

A few weeks later, on February 7, Ludorf and Voboril were both questioned again. Neither one changed their story.

A source familiar with events says that a third employee, who was also at Et Al and who allegedly had originally told the BofA employee relations people that he had seen nothing inappropriate, did change his story. It’s unclear why he did so or what he said. He has since left BofA, and did not return a message. Singer says that this employee’s decision will be “probed extensively” in the FINRA arbitration.

Two days later, both Ludorf and Voboril were placed on paid leave without any further explanation, and at the end of the month, they were fired. Ludorf told one of her former colleagues that although she’d been told her paid leave would be kept confidential, she received a LinkedIn message from a reporter asking about her “suspension” from BAML. She even emailed a screenshot of the message to Slowey, the global head of the prime brokerage business, and to her HR contact, thinking they needed to know that someone at the bank was violating the firm’s confidentiality policy. She was terminated by HR that evening.

“I didn’t see or observe what they wanted me to say I saw and observed,” Ludorf says today. “Three different times I was questioned and each time I told the truth. I would not change my response and I lost my job because of it.”

Voboril, for his part, found out at 9:30 a.m. on the morning of February 28  that he was being fired for “interfering with the bank’s internal review.” Within the hour, reporters who knew that precise language were calling him for comment. Bloomberg wrote that BofA had “dismissed two staffers for insufficiently disclosing information as it examined a complaint of inappropriate sexual conduct by Omeed Malik.”

“My wife marched on Washington and I worked for a feminist publication in college,” Voboril says. “Of course, it should be safe to say you saw something without any fear of retaliation. But it should also be safe to say you didn’t see anything.” Despite what happened to him, he still says the lesson he wants his children to learn is to always tell the truth. “If one day your employer threatens your career and livelihood if you refuse to make untrue statements that support a false narrative, stick with the truth,” he says. “Even if you get fired, you’ll have your integrity.”

‘You can create a culture that’s intolerant of behavior’

On February 8, BofA also filed Malik’s U5, which is a form brokerage firms must file when an employee leaves. On the U5, Malik was accused of “personal conduct in violation of Firm standards, including interfering with the Firm’s review of the matter.”

Based on that language, it seems that BofA is arguing that Malik was fired for the interference as much as the alleged harassment. BofA would not comment as to what Malik did that constituted interference. Singer says Malik heard nothing about allegations of interference until after he was fired.

“There was nothing about which to interfere or collude as there was no underlying wrongdoing,” says Singer. “Furthermore, for the avoidance of any doubt, at no time did Mr. Malik attempt to interfere with whatever sham investigation it was that the company was undertaking.”

Anne Finucane speaks onstage at the Bloomberg C-Suite Conversation on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)

In any event, BofA used the Malik story to pat itself on the back. In Davos, BofA’s top executives were asked about Malik. “You can’t legislate individual behavior, but you can create a culture that’s intolerant of behavior,” Anne Finucane, the bank’s vice chairman, responded. “And I think we’ve done that.”

But there’s one more twist to the story, which is that Malik, who was the only non-white Muslim in BofA’s prime brokerage division, is also going to sue for discrimination. While the FINRA complaint is private, his discrimination case will be in a regular court, meaning it will be public. Singer says that in sharp contrast to Malik, there are senior white men at BofA with very specific charges against them who nevertheless have kept their jobs.

BofA says, “We investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior and when warranted, take appropriate disciplinary action.”

It’s critically important that people who have behaved badly are held to account, and you could argue that it is too early in #MeToo’s young life to start worrying about fairness. I’d argue it’s never too early, not the least for a practical reason: If the meting out of justice isn’t done fairly and evenhandedly, the eventual backlash will be bitter. We all have an interest in getting this right.

Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and bestselling author. Her recent book is “Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants,” published by Columbia Global Reports.

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