Stephen Bittel, a real-estate billionaire who enjoyed a short reign as head of the Florida Democratic Party before resigning in disgrace last fall, sexually harassed a female employee by describing his sexual partners' pubic hair, detailing his pornography preferences, offering to take her shopping for lingerie, and touching her toes on his private jet, according to a new complaint filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
The allegations were outlined in a disturbing 27-page lawsuit filed Friday by 34-year-old Andrea Molina, who worked for five years as director of acquisitions for Bittel's real-estate firm, Terranova.
A spokesperson for Bittel issued a statement to New Times Tuesday calling Molina's allegations "sensationalistic and overblown."
"In this case, revisionist history is being used in an attempt to leverage Stephen Bittel for a financial windfall," the statement read. (Bittel's full statement is posted below.)
Bittel resigned last November following a Politico story in which six former Florida Democratic Party staffers and consultants described him as misogynistic and demeaning. Though the women did not accuse Bittel of inappropriately touching or threatening them, they described a pattern of behavior that created a hostile environment for female employees.
Molina's lawsuit adds more credibility — and detail — to the women's complaints. Before joining Terranova, Molina says, she earned $150,000 annually as a senior financial analyst for a commercial real estate firm. After meeting Bittel in fall 2012, she says, he recruited her to join Terranova, paying her only $90,000 a year but promising bonuses that would exceed her old salary. Bittel, who is 62 years old, also made numerous comments about her eventually taking over the company, according to the lawsuit.
But Molina says her contract with Terranova came with some strange provisions. The written agreement obligated her to remain "on call 24 hours per day, 7 days per week" and forbade her from disclosing her place of employment. It also came with an 18-month
Shortly after Molina started her new job, Bittel bragged that sexual harassment cases filed against him were "unwinnable" and that he was "unbeatable" because he "knew all the judges in Miami," she says. Bittel, who is a licensed Florida attorney, told Molina he had studied the law and noted that plaintiffs tended to win cases only when there was a "quid pro quo" demand for sexual acts in exchange for promoting or not firing an employee.
According to the lawsuit, Bittel described to Molina the "porn stories" he enjoyed reading and the pubic hair styling of women with whom he had slept. He frequently referred to himself as a "sapiosexual," a person sexually attracted to intelligence. On one occasion, Molina says, Bittel asked her to reset his Facebook password, knowing that a message would pop up showing another female employee's bare breasts.
But Molina says Bittel's behavior didn't stop at sexual harassment. During her two pregnancies, she says, he fat-shamed her by asking unnecessary questions about her weight and wondering if she would return to her
"Hoping for some relief from Bittel's invasive demands, Molina relented and sent him a picture looking down at the register of the scale over her grossly swollen feet and ankles in the hopes it would shut Bittel up and insulate her, albeit temporarily, from further harassment when she returned from maternity leave," the complaint says.
Instead, he used the photo against her. "When Molina returned from maternity leave in August 2014, she found Bittel had framed the picture of her tipping the scale at 200 pounds on swollen feet and put it on her desk, which was adjacent to his office in a highly trafficked area of an open office environment for both Terranova employees and guests to see." He also made inappropriate comments about breastfeeding and sent her several emails about wet nurses.
In summer 2015, Molina says, Bittel invited her to lunch on the pretense of checking out retail real estate in Miami Beach. After a sushi lunch on Lincoln Road, she says, Bittel "announced they would go shopping at Victoria's Secret." He refused to take no for an answer and became upset when she would not go into the store with him.
Another time, in 2016, after Bittel and Molina had a business meeting in Philadelphia, he allegedly suggested she take off her shoes to get more comfortable, after which he grabbed her foot and touched her toes before she pulled away.
The lawsuit says another female employee told Molina that Bittel had propositioned her with $5,000, placing a stack of bills on his desk before summoning her to his office for a private meeting. Molina says Bittel persistently asked "her price," meaning the amount of money it would take for her to have sex with him.
Though the 2017 Politico story described a "breast-shaped stress squeeze-ball" Bittel kept on his desk, his office decor was apparently far worse. Molina's complaint says he displayed a taxidermied Chihuahua "with grossly large testicles" and a painting of a dog licking its balls with the caption "Because they can." He also had a vanity license plate that read, "GR8 SHAG," and a door sign that instructed visitors to "Take your shoes off before entering... and everything else."
Molina's lawyers seem to anticipate criticism of her allegations in a section of the complaint that reads, "Why Molina didn't leave." According to the suit, she relied on the promises of year-end bonuses to support her growing family and could not find another job in her field because of the
After the Politico story came out, Bittel threatened to identify the women who had accused him of creepy behavior and promised he would "get even," according to Molina's lawsuit. Believing Molina was one of the anonymous sources in the story, Bittel fired her in January 2018, the suit says.
Although polygraph test results are rarely admissible in court, Molina's attorney, Karen Coolman Amlong, says she had polygraph examiner John Palmatier test Molina. "He opined the overall statistical probability that she was truthful when answering the questions was approximately 98.3 [percent]," Amlong tells New Times.
As of Tuesday, Bittel had not yet filed a formal response in court. His full statement to New Times reads thusly:
This complaint comes from someone who, by their own admission, has lived beyond their means and been unable to meet their financial obligations. In this case, revisionist history is being used in an attempt to leverage Stephen Bittel for a financial windfall.
Stephen Bittel has acknowledged and repeatedly apologized for past inappropriate comments, for which he suffered very public consequences. He has since corrected this behavior but past history has left him vulnerable to accusations.
The truth is that Ms. Molina’s position was eliminated in a company-wide reorganization that resulted in the simultaneous downsizing of nine employees. The terms of her contract were clear, particularly to an Ivy League graduate, and she willingly agreed to the employment terms that she now challenges.
When the correct context and the facts are put on the record, the allegations in this complaint will be shown to be nothing more than sensationalistic and overblown.