Joe Biden And Sexual Assault: An Open Letter

Dear Vice President Biden,

In your January 20 speech to business leaders at Davos, continuing your decades-long work on violence against women, you told members of the World Economic Forum, “we have to change the culture.” You implored men to “speak up if they see instances of harassment and abuse of women, saying that ‘the most cowardly men I know are the ones who know it’s happening, but do nothing because it’s not good for them.’”

Who is going to speak up about this?:

On December 25, 2015, The New York Times published a story about former rabbi, sex offender Marc Gafni, and his business partnership with Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey:

“He [Gafni] added, “She was 14 going on 35…”

“Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey…is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center.”

In response, more than 100 rabbis authored an online petition, demanding that Mackey cut ties with Gafni. As of this writing, the petition has garnered more than 3400 electronic signatures.


Despite the outcry, CEO Mackey doubled down on his relationship with Gafni, issuing a statement, defining their relationship as “personal.” Net outcome: Mackey, the CEO of a $9 billion global company (market cap), remains board chair and enabler-in-chief of a known abuser’s nonprofit corporation.


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Expert Commentary

From About Money:

Brad Hecht, Vice President and Chief Research Officer, Reputation Institute:

As the founder of, primary spokesman for, and emotional leader of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey has a responsibility to immediately and directly address this issue. Reputation Institute’s research has shown that the two dimensions of corporate leadership and corporate governance make up almost one-third of Whole Foods Market’s overall reputation, and directly influence the willingness of consumers to buy and support Whole Foods vs. other alternatives. Whether he is willing to admit it or not, Mackey’s personal actions and associations will have a direct impact on the reputation of Whole Foods Market, and therefore the willingness of customers to support the company he leads.

Jo-Ellen Pozner, Faculty, U.C. Berkeley, Haas School of Business:

My take on this situation, in a nutshell, is that corporate leaders are showing a real lack of judgment in endorsing somebody with a tainted reputation of this particular sort. Not only does it show a disregard for important groups of stakeholders, it reveals a bit of hubris and tone-deafness. I think these sorts of associations are bad publicity, and reveal a blind spot which makes me question managerial judgment.

Shane Yonston, Principal, Impact Investors:

Whole Foods positions itself as a socially responsible company, which is an important part of its brand. If these core values come into question by employees, consumers, partners, or investors, it can have long-term damaging effects on the company’s stock value. Reputational risk is real, and the way Mr. Mackey chooses to handle this conflict will certainly be watched by investors in the SRI community.

James McRitchie,

Mr. Mackey has a fiduciary duty to WFM shareholders. His affiliation with Gafni and the center certainly put the reputation and value of WFM at risk. 

Cary Krosinsky, Yale Center for Business and the Environment:

I think in a case like this it should be the obligation of all investors to hold the companies they own to a minimum standard behavior.

ValueEdge Advisors:

But a CEO, especially a founder, is the public face of a company and Mackey is indistinguishable from the brand, as we saw when his anti-Obamacare comments led to calls for a boycott. His continued association with Gafni and his claim that it will not affect the brand calls into question his judgment and fitness.

John Mackey, co-founder and co- CEO, Whole Foods Market, and board chair, Center for Integral Wisdom:

My involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is conducted strictly in my personal life and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market.

Elizabeth Cucinotta Sorvillo, attorney and victims’ advocate, in Nonprofit Quarterly:

Whole Foods is incorrect in their statement. We are not just talking about a personal relationship, but a professional relationship as well. Mackey has a fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders to not associate with an alleged child molester.

Michael A. Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, and co-author of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women:

“There is a growing chorus of younger men today who denounce sexual violence against women. But voiced opinions are one thing, and actions yet another. Too often still, when men’s vested interests are at stake–be they in the corporate board room, the frat house or the locker room–otherwise ‘good men’ maintain a culture of silence that helps to perpetuate violence against women.”

Vice President Biden, I’m sure you would agree that Mackey’s decision to cement his business partnership with a known predator damages our efforts to change the culture of violence against women. Gafni’s admission, “She was 14 going on 35,” is a confession of criminal sexual assault, and anyone who isn’t speaking up is complicit.

Who, then, is going to speak up as you implored business leaders to do in your speech at Davos? Whole Foods Market isn’t speaking up. Goldman Sachs, the third-largest investor in Whole Foods hasn’t responded. The New York Times spoke up briefly, but has gone silent.

Will you lead by example and speak up about this situation, as you admonished business leaders to do, to help effectuate the culture change you called for?

Thank you for taking a brave stand in addressing violence against women.

Nancy Levine

cc: Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women