Aprominent veterans’ group doing relief work on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic has quietly gone to war with itself in federal court, with two branches of the organization suing each other amid allegations of sexual misconduct at an alcohol-fueled retreat last summer.
Founded in 2010, Team Rubicon mobilizes military veterans and other volunteers skilled as first responders to do disaster relief. It is one of a number of nonprofits founded after 9/11 by a new generation of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Team Rubicon volunteers have worked on six continents and in all 50 states, and helped out in the aftermath of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. More recently, the group’s American and U.K. branches have helped set up mobile coronavirus test sites, delivered food and supplies to those at risk, and moved and tagged bodies at hastily established mortuaries.
Team Rubicon USA was started by Marine Corps veterans Jake Wood and William McNulty, who first joined forces to lead a team of volunteers into Haiti after it was devastated by a 2010 earthquake. Its meteoric rise was fueled by high-profile media attention. Wood was recognized by the GQ “Gentlemen’s Fund,” Gen. David Petraeus served on the group’s advisory board, and the organization received early financial grants from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and others. Team Rubicon’s American chapter now deploys tens of thousands of volunteers, and has sister organizations in Canada, the U.K., Australia, and Norway.
But a decade after they began working together, Wood, who leads the group’s American wing, and McNulty, who runs its global branch, have found themselves on opposite sides of the court dispute that is threatening to hamper much of Team Rubicon’s service work around the world. The power struggle is linked to a question that has dogged the group since its earliest days: whether, following the troubled U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, international veterans would agree to work under American leadership.
At the center of the dispute are allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment that the group’s U.S. leaders say indicate a “failure to protect the Team Rubicon brand.” The alleged offenders, the CEOs of Team Rubicon U.K. and Team Rubicon Australia, have faced internal investigations, but have kept their jobs, which Team Rubicon USA argues is unacceptable given the allegations.
The court battle concerns whether Team Rubicon’s global branch and country affiliates should be allowed to keep using the organization’s name and branding in their work and fundraising despite their failure to fire the two men accused of misconduct. After TR USA attempted to revoke its trademark agreement with the global division and pressured funders not to donate to the work of TR Global, TR Global sued, arguing that TR U.K. and TR Australia are legally independent organizations and the global branch doesn’t have the authority to fire their CEOs.
The group’s global branch also claims that volunteers for Team Rubicon USA have themselves faced sexual misconduct allegations before, and says the 2019 incidents are being used as a pretext for the group’s American leaders to seize control of what has become a worldwide network of organizations.
The allegations surfaced last August after a leadership retreat at a YMCA in Estes Park, Colorado, according to court records, interviews, and internal documents obtained by The Intercept. The main accusation centers on a late-night encounter between a volunteer for Team Rubicon’s Canadian outlet and the CEO of its U.K. branch, Richard Sharp. The details are murky, and various documents, including a declaration filed over the weekend by the alleged victim, Melissa DeMeda, offer incomplete versions of what happened.
In her initial statement to Team Rubicon in August, DeMeda described an incident that occurred late one night at the retreat after extensive drinking, when she and Sharp stepped outside so Sharp could smoke. The conversation began normally, but Sharp soon started touching her in ways that made her uncomfortable, tried to kiss her, and made remarks suggesting they have sex, according to her written statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept.
“No, I’m not doing this,” DeMeda told Sharp, according to her statement. She then backed away and went inside.
In messages to colleagues later, Sharp denied propositioning DeMeda, but he apologized to her the next day, according to an internal investigation of Sharp by Team Rubicon U.K., which was obtained by The Intercept. In statements to the board members who conducted the internal U.K. investigation, Sharp said that the encounter “was just a conversation” and “there was no incident.”
“If I was an ogre why would she come outside with me?” he asked, according to the board’s report. Sharp did not respond to a request for comment.
TR Canada CEO Bryan Riddell learned of the incident the next day and reported it to Wood and others, according to the U.K. board’s report. In an email exchange with Sharp, Riddell said he wanted to get the incident resolved, but added that he was “disappointed in [DeMeda’s] judgment last night.”
“I know it takes two to tango,” Riddell emailed Sharp.
In a statement emailed to The Intercept, Riddell said those remarks were “premature on [his] part and showed poor judgement.” He continued: “I had no reason to doubt her credibility then, and we still don’t; we commended her for her courage to report the incident.”
DeMeda’s allegation split Team Rubicon’s American and global branches, with the U.S. organization under Wood’s leadership accusing the Global affiliate of failing to take appropriate action against Sharp and Geoffrey Evans, the CEO of Team Rubicon Australia. DeMeda accused Evans of publicly directing “sexually inappropriate remarks” at her during the retreat, such as, “You’re a gorgeous girl” and “I’d have sex with you,” according to her statement to TR USA.
In DeMeda’s own declaration filed Saturday night, she wrote only that she “experienced objectionable behavior” from Sharp and Evans, without offering details. DeMeda could not be reached for comment; her lawyer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
If Sharp and Evans had been Team Rubicon USA employees, they would have been “fired for cause,” according to a filing from TR Canada CEO Riddell, whose chapter is the only global affiliate supporting the group’s American branch in the court fight. That led TR USA to try to end its trademark agreement with the global division.
After DeMeda’s initial complaint to Team Rubicon in 2019, two other people told TR USA that Sharp had verbally harassed them during the retreat. One accusation centered on an argument Sharp got into with a woman on the night of August 14 after a bonfire where Sharp, formerly a decorated officer in the Royal Marines, was pressured to talk about his wartime experiences. Sharp had been hurt by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, which led to his being medically discharged, the U.K. board’s report said, and ended his military career.
Later that evening, after Sharp had drunk more alcohol, he and the woman got into a heated argument about his military service, according to the TR U.K. board’s internal report and witness statements obtained by The Intercept. According to the statements, witnesses heard Sharp call the woman “an ungrateful prick,” and use the word “cunt.”
Sharp “left the room and walked into the lobby to go back to his room,” the U.K. board report says, and apologized the next morning. “He described himself as being ‘too drunk and I walked into the wrong crowd in the wrong state of mind.’ [Sharp] described his experiences that evening as creating ‘the perfect storm.’ We agree that it is likely that it did.”
Sara George, one of the TR U.K. board members responsible for conducting the British investigation, referred The Intercept to a statement on TR U.K.’s website that does not mention Sharp by name. The statement says that despite “significant extenuating circumstances,” the panel of trustees found that “a member of staff had been verbally abusive, while under the influence of alcohol,” and that further similar conduct would be grounds for dismissal. It also noted that the panel was “unable to conclude that there had been any incidence of sexual harassment,” in part because it lacked access to the complainants. The internal U.K. report noted that the board members who conducted the British probe were blocked by TR USA and its lawyers from speaking directly with DeMeda, the other woman who accused Sharp of harassment, and other witnesses.
“We came to the conclusion that the U.S. investigation was not conducted fairly or properly as required by English law and that there was no reasonable prospect of its conclusions being upheld in a British court,” George told The Intercept.
DeMeda’s declaration says she was never invited to participate in the British panel’s investigation.
“I do not consider myself a victim,” DeMeda wrote in her declaration. “I never asked anyone to shield me from inquiries regarding what I experienced at the [conference] in Colorado. Nor was I ever informed that investigators in the United Kingdom or Australia or anywhere else were interested in talking to me. I would have willingly participated in such investigations had I been asked. Moreover, I would have been willing to talk directly to the CEOs of Team Rubicon UK and Team Rubicon Australia about the conduct that was the subject of my written complaint. While I would not have expected such conversations to be easy, I was willing to do whatever was necessary to resolve the situation.”
While DeMeda said she stands by her complaint, “it was not my original inclination to include the conduct of the CEO of the Team Rubicon Australia in my submission. I felt pressure to do so by Mr. Riddell.”
“No pressure has ever been applied, in fact, completely the opposite,” Riddell wrote in an email to The Intercept. DeMeda told him about the alleged conduct before they left Estes Park, he wrote, and he told her he was obliged to take it very seriously, adding: “Ms. DeMeda has TRC’s full support in that matter.”
In an email, Evans, the CEO of Team Rubicon Australia, wrote that the independent Australian review concluded that his remarks to DeMeda would not have “constituted sexual harassment under Australian or U.S. law.”
“The independent Australian investigation found that I could not have reasonably anticipated that Ms. DeMeda would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by my remarks, amongst the many other remarks made by others on that evening,” Evans wrote.
Additionally, according to Evans, the review found that “TR-USA’s management of this matter did not meet Australian standards for procedural fairness,” and that TR USA had blocked accesses to witnesses and refused to provide adequate source material from witnesses’ statements.
“When first approached by TRUSA, I was advised I was being interviewed about ‘an inappropriate sexual comment,’” Evans wrote. “I was genuinely upset that Ms. DeMeda had taken offense to something I may have said. I therefore immediately and unreservedly accepted responsibility for my actions and issued a sincere apology to her. Following this, I believed the matter resolved.”
Team Rubicon’s structure has long been a source of discord. When the group was founded, it was primarily an American organization. In the late 2000s, the number of veterans’ charities in the United States grew explosively, far outpacing the rate at which other charities were being founded.
But the idea of utilizing veterans’ first responder skills appealed to many outside the United States. So in 2014, the organization sought advice from an independent consulting firm on how to expand internationally, according to a court declaration from McNulty, who now serves as CEO of TR Global and is on the board of TR Australia. The consulting firm, IDEO, found that “while foreign veterans and leaders were very excited about the Team Rubicon brand, philosophy and mission,” they “harbored skepticism about American oversight and preferred to be part of a global coalition, as opposed to seeing themselves as subordinate to a controlling American parent,” according to McNulty.
In an email, McNulty said that the independence of individual country affiliates had other advantages, including that it allowed them to identify unique service opportunities based on their veteran community’s experience. After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, for instance, TR U.K. recruited former Gurkas — elite Nepalese soldiers who fought in the British army — to help TR USA get aid into the country. “The thought was, if we can operate as a family of charities, TR-USA would benefit because it could deploy to places in the world that might otherwise be non-permissible for Americans,” McNulty wrote.
But Wood long opposed the idea of licensing the brand through a global entity, preferring a U.S.-led international structure, McNulty said, and sought to undermine it almost from the beginning.
In an interview, Wood told The Intercept that he thought a direct licensing model was “more efficient” and “more effective,” and that he’s been transparent about that belief throughout.
“There has never been a long-running, multiyear secret conspiracy to unwind TR Global,” Wood said. “At times we did propose alternative ways forward that included the dissolution of TRG. But that was never secretly done. It was proposed and discussed directly with TR Global.”
In her declaration, DeMeda said that Riddell, the TR Canada CEO, wanted to “forc[e] the dissolution of Team Rubicon Global” so that TR Canada could establish a direct licensing relationship with Team Rubicon USA. “I was aware that the CEO of Team Rubicon Canada intended to author a letter to that effect and that he hoped to secure the cooperation of the CEOs of Team Rubicon UK and Team Rubicon Australia with this objective,” the declaration states. The other CEOs, however, did not agree to the proposal.
Riddell disputed that characterization. “My feelings on the structure of the network were always transparent and it was always my intent for us to arrive at a shared vision for the future of the network,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept.
After making her internal complaint to the organization in August 2019, DeMeda accepted a job with Team Rubicon Canada, but she no longer works there.
TR Global has also suggested that sexual misconduct is a long-standing cultural problem at TR USA. Included in the court documents is a letter McNulty wrote in 2018 to the chair of the board of TR Global, where he lists “[r]eported sexual assault and allegations of sexual misconduct at TR UK and TR USA, respectively,” as “[i]ssues of concern.”
A letter from retired Norwegian Brig. Gen. Ole-Asbjørn Fauske, the chair of the board of directors for Team Rubicon Norway, says that a Norwegian volunteer heard from an American counterpart that “women have had to learn to accept a culture of sexual harassment within Team Rubicon USA because of the lack of action when such incidents were reported.”
Wood told The Intercept that Team Rubicon USA “takes issues of sexual harassment very seriously.” Four instances of sexual harassment involving Team Rubicon USA volunteers were reported in 2018 and 2019, Wood said, and all four resulted in “the expulsion of the offending volunteer from the organization.”
“When issues of sexual harassment have arisen in our volunteer ranks, we take an approach that is firm, fair, and consistent, and we move very swiftly to adjudicate those claims,” Wood said. “And they do not happen very often.”
The U.K. board report also accused Wood of providing large amounts of free alcohol at the retreat, and said that the group’s American leaders refused to answer questions about how alcohol was purchased and provided.
Wood told The Intercept he viewed that allegation as a “smokescreen and deflection technique from TR U.K.,” adding that “none of that was pertinent to the actions of their CEO or whether or not he committed misconduct.”
“Most of the alcohol was donated by sponsors of the organization,” Wood said, and liquor was not served.
The code of conduct for the conference does not mention alcohol, though Wood said he “led conversations on our culture and our values and our expectations for this event, and part of that was setting an expectation around alcohol use.”
But a declaration from the only TR Global staffer to attend the retreat paints a more chaotic picture. “I personally witnessed TR-USA representatives freely furnishing drink tickets to anyone that made a request without limitations,” wrote Adam Szafran, TR Global’s chief operating officer. “At one point the servers at the hosted bar that were taking tickets at the hosted bar left, but alcohol at the hosted bar continued to be consumed without any oversight.”
When Szafran tried to discuss the “alcohol mismanagement issues” with TR USA staff, he wrote, “my concerns were dismissed.”
At a veterans’ gathering, the TR U.K. internal investigation noted, alcohol could pose special risks. “It was a reasonable expectation that attendees would consume either no alcohol at all for the duration of the conference or in very moderate quantities in private,” the report said. “This is particularly important in the context of an event attended by large numbers of the veteran community which is notably afflicted by alcoholism and addiction.”
Update: May 13, 2020, 11:30 a.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a comment from Team Rubicon Australia CEO Geoffrey Evans that was received after publication, as well as a slightly fuller account of the accusation against him.
Update: May 20, 2020
This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Sara George and to clarify the findings of the TR U.K. board investigation.