Ex-FTC Commissioner Faces Storm of Sexual Harassment Claims

In antitrust circles, Joshua Wright was a star. A former Federal Trade Commission member, he consulted for Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc. and worked with prominent law firms, the Federalist Society and GOP donors like Peter Thiel. From 2015 until last year, Wright directed faculty hiring at George Mason University’s law school, which has positioned itself at the center of the conservative legal universe.

(Bloomberg) — In antitrust circles, Joshua Wright was a star. A former Federal Trade Commission member, he consulted for Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc. and worked with prominent law firms, the Federalist Society and GOP donors like Peter Thiel. From 2015 until last year, Wright directed faculty hiring at George Mason University’s law school, which has positioned itself at the center of the conservative legal universe.

But eight women told Bloomberg News that, over nearly two decades, Wright used his positions and influence to proposition female students, staffers and job applicants. Promising career help, he sent some of them flirtatious texts, invited others on trips where he would book only one hotel room and engaged in sexual relationships with three of them. Several of them said they feared losing opportunities if they turned him down.

Wright, 46, denied coercing women and said his relationships were completely consensual. He acknowledged making “mistakes” but said he has never conditioned his career help. On Thursday, he filed a defamation suit against two of the women, Elyse Dorsey and Angela Landry, whose allegations were previously reported by legal publication Law360. Wright described both women as jealous ex-lovers who embarked on a “vindictive crusade to destroy” him after he ended their relationships. Wright, who didn’t sue Law360, is asking both women for $108 million in damages.

Dorsey and Landry, who were among five women who spoke to Bloomberg and agreed to be identified, said Wright was seeking to silence them with this suit. Three other women who spoke to Bloomberg asked not be named for fear of the repercussions.

“He was so good at making you think you need his connections to make it,” said Elise Nelson, one of Wright’s former students. “But the women he preyed on are extremely talented, smart, and successful of their own making.”

Three of Wright’s former research assistants said he pressured them into sexual relationships while they were students, including Dorsey and Landry, who said he continued to do so after graduation as they built their careers. Nelson and three other women who also worked for Wright said he engaged in behavior that blurred professional lines. An eighth women who sought a position at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, Christa Laser, said Wright asked her on a date after they spoke about a job and then stopped responding once she declined.

Seven years after the #MeToo movement spawned a reckoning about sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men in politics and the entertainment, media and technology industries, the allegations against Wright point to challenges women can still face in academic and professional settings. 

Those allegations also portray a cozy network between prominent law firms, well-connected insiders and the FTC, a key government agency at the center of business and policy that enforces consumer protection and antitrust laws. Several people told Bloomberg that Wright’s questionable behavior was an “open secret” for years, and current and former George Mason law students described a whisper network warning women to steer clear of him.

In an email to students last week, George Mason law school Dean Ken Randall said the university conducted an “exhaustive” investigation into Wright’s conduct beginning in 2021 and that he resigned earlier this month “rather than face a termination proceeding.” The university said in a statement that it has initiated a new, broader review of the claims against Wright and its systems for responding to misconduct allegations. A formal process sparked by a complaint against Wright by Dorsey remains ongoing.

The FTC said it’s aware of allegations that Wright had inappropriate relationships with subordinates there, though it said it had no record of any complaints. In an Aug. 15 agency-wide email, FTC Chair Lina Khan called the allegations “deeply disturbing” and encouraged anyone with information on workplace harassment or misconduct to report it.

Google, who hired Wright as a consultant for years, said it cut ties with him this month after the allegations became public. Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, where Wright worked between 2016 and 2019, previously investigated sexual misconduct claims against him, according to three people familiar with the matter. The firm declined to comment except to say it “takes issues related to employee conduct very seriously.”

‘100% Mutual and Consensual’

Wright, who divorced in 2021 and has three children, said in a statement, “I am fully accountable for the decisions I made as an unfaithful husband and will always feel remorse for my ex-wife and my family, though every relationship I have ever been in was 100% mutual and consensual, some in question spanning several years and one even more than decade, I know I hurt those that I cared for and loved.

“I have learned from these mistakes, am currently in a loving committed relationship, and my support for all of my former students – including those now making false allegations – always remained constant regardless of the status of any personal relationship. I never let any relationship impair my professional duties and will always be ready and committed to help all of my former students.”

In his lawsuit, Wright argued that George Mason didn’t adopt a policy requiring faculty to disclose consensual relationships with students until 2012. The university on Monday said it was revising its policy to explicitly ban sexual and romantic relationships between students and employees who have any academic oversight over them, with the latter responsible for compliance.

“The consent or willingness of the parties in the relationship to participate in the relationship is irrelevant in determining whether there is a violation of this policy,” the new policy states.

Wright’s current girlfriend is a former student who interned for him at the FTC. She declined to speak to Bloomberg and asked that her name not be published. 

According to Wright, Dorsey and Landry made false statements to his clients and employers and demanded that he pay them millions of dollars to avoid being sued by them. Wright said some of his clients have dropped him, costing him around $1.6 million a year. 

Dorsey, now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Landry denied his allegations. “Survivors should not face a hundred-million-dollar lawsuit for coming forward about what they experienced as students,” they said. They haven’t yet formally responded to his suit, but their time to do so has not elapsed.

Though not well-known outside the legal world, Wright held outsized influence in the antitrust circles, where he was considered a reliable friend to the tech industry, especially Google. He also regularly spoke at events for the Federalist Society, the influential conservative legal group, and helped fundraise for Republican candidates, which introduced him to Thiel and former HP Inc. chief executive officer Carly Fiorina.

Wright, who earned a law degree and Ph.D. at University of California, Los Angeles, first joined the George Mason faculty in 2004. His career took off after he joined CRA International Inc. as a consultant in 2009 and helped Trojan maker Church & Dwight Co. beat an FTC probe into monopolization of the condom market. Google, facing its own monopolization allegations at the time, hired him as economic adviser, beginning a long and lucrative working relationship. 

Wagstaff, a 2009 George Mason law graduate, said she and Wright began a sexual relationship when she was a student and he was a married professor. She served as his research assistant for two years, seeking his mentorship and professional recommendations to launch an academic career. During that time, she said he frequently asked her for sex in his office. 

In May 2007, Wagstaff said they attended a conference together at Harvard Law School. Echoing allegations by several of the women, she said Wright made the travel arrangements but didn’t let her know beforehand that he was booking them into the same room and same bed. 

Wright’s lawyers at Washington’s Binnall Law Group said, “While Mr. Wright has no recollection of this specific instance, he and Ms. Wagstaff were in a months-long relationship and all interactions between them were consensual.”

Embarrassed and Ashamed

Dorsey said Wright booked first-class plane tickets and an expensive hotel when he invited her to join him for client meetings in Napa Valley shortly after she became his research assistant in fall 2010. When she found out that they’d be sharing a room, she said she felt embarrassed and ashamed but couldn’t afford her own room. Later, when Wright asked her for sexual contact, Dorsey said she “didn’t say no to it, but I really also didn’t feel like I had an alternative in the moment.” They never attended any client meetings during the trip, she said.

In his suit, Wright claims that he and Dorsey, then both married to other people, were already in a relationship at the time of the trip, which he described as a “romantic getaway.” He said her “false account is straight out of a bad movie and is intended to portray Mr. Wright as a sexual predator and herself as a victim.”

Wright’s clout grew after President Barack Obama appointed him to a Republican seat on the FTC. During his stint there from 2013 to 2015, he further developed his reputation as a friend of Big Tech. Wright was a prolific “no” vote on attempts to regulate the industry. He issued 16 written dissents, including on a report raising security concerns about internet-connected devices.

Several women said Wright dangled the prospect of working for him at the FTC. During his time as a commissioner, more than a dozen George Mason students served as interns in the office, often handpicked by Wright, according to a person familiar with the matter, though not all of them were women. One 2021 report found at least 50 George Mason students, most from the law school, interned at the FTC in the past decade. That was more than from any other law school, including higher-ranked institutions like Harvard or Georgetown. 

Landry, another former George Mason research assistant who began a sexual relationship with Wright in February 2010, later became an attorney-adviser under him at the FTC. She said that he pressured her to have sex in his office and stay in his room during a conference in Brazil, even though the FTC paid for her to have a separate one. 

Another former George Mason student and FTC intern also said Wright booked them into the same room for a 2014 conference in California. Wright’s lawyers declined to comment on that allegation. 

Wright resigned from the FTC in August 2015, more than four years before his term ended. Wright’s lawyers said he wasn’t aware of any complaints filed about him at the FTC and that he resigned to return to teaching.

The FTC said it revamped its internship program in 2021 to introduce a more formal hiring process and pay for students, though it said the change was unrelated to the allegations against Wright. Its policies for managers, which applies to commissioners, forbid relationships with people they supervise.

Big Tech Ties

Wright returned to George Mason later in 2015 and became head of its Global Antitrust Institute. In 2016, he also became of counsel at Wilson Sonsini, Google’s regular antitrust law firm. Dorsey, who joined Wilson Sonsini in 2013, said Wright pressured her to resume their relationship after he arrived at the firm. Once she agreed, he arranged for her to become deputy chair of a group he led at the Federalist Society and to teach at George Mason’s online master’s degree program.

It “felt like I needed to be on good terms with him for all of that to continue to happen,” said Dorsey, who left the firm in 2018 to join the FTC. 

Wright left Wilson Sonsini in November 2019 amid an investigation into a sexual relationship with a woman in a junior position, according to people who asked not to be named discussing a confidential matter. Wright’s lawyers said he resigned from Wilson Sonsini to focus on his consulting work.

When Donald Trump won the presidency, Wright joined his transition team and was a leading candidate to become FTC chair or the top Justice Department antitrust official. He never joined the administration, but continued to have influence, advising his FTC successors on hiring and strategy. 

By then, George Mason had renamed its law school after iconic conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and had begun promoting itself as a right-leaning alternative to the Ivy League. Wright had a major role to play as head of the law school’s faculty hiring committee for seven of the last eight years.

He also returned to consulting, working for Google and Amazon. The two tech companies donated nearly $1 million each to the institute he led between 2018 and 2020, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg through a public records request. Meta Platforms Inc. donated $675,000 during that time. Amazon said it didn’t donate to George Mason this year and stopped using Wright as a consultant more than a year ago. Meta declined to comment.

By then Wagstaff was teaching at George Mason as an adjunct. After hearing complaints about Wright from students, she said she raised concerns about him with the university in 2020 and was told it couldn’t take action without an official complaint. Dorsey filed one in December 2021, alleging Wright withdrew an offer to work at the law school after she broke off their relationship. 

Laser, a Cleveland State University’s law school professor, said she spoke to Wright about a job but he followed up by asking her on a date. After she declined, she said she stopped hearing from him and about the job. 

Wright’s lawyers said he met Laser informally to discuss job opportunities at George Mason but she wasn’t being considered for one at the time. Wright told Laser that he would recuse himself from the hiring decision if they dated, his lawyers said.

Laser said she decided to go public after Wright received congratulations from people she respected in response to his announcement that he was resigning from George Mason.

“I realized that nobody knows any of this,” she said. “At the least, I could change that.”

(Updates with an excerpt from George Mason’s new policy.)

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