Congress Examines Sexual Harassment Settlements Paid With Taxpayer Dollars

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Originally published on December 7, 2017 7:38 pm
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In a week when two members announced their departures after sexual harassment allegations, Congress is taking a hard look at its process for dealing with claims. For one thing, it does not require any public disclosure of such claims, and lawmakers can use taxpayer money to pay out settlements. Now there is momentum to change that. But as NPR's Susan Davis reports, lawmakers are trying to balance the public's right to know and the participants' right to privacy.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The Office of House Employment Counsel's under the microscope these days. They're the lawyers that represent members of Congress when they're facing sexual harassment claims. At a hearing today about this process, counsel Gloria Lett pushed back against the perception that her office exists to shield lawmakers accused of wrongdoing.

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GLORIA LETT: When we are contacted about these issues - which unfortunately does not happen in all instances - and our clients tell us that they have done absolutely nothing wrong, we question that, too. We are not in the business of covering up unlawful behavior.

DAVIS: Congressional employees go to the Office of Compliance to file harassment complaints. It can be a lengthy process that includes mandatory cooling-off periods, mediation and usually non-disclosure agreements. That means they can't tell Congress any details about which lawmakers have settled harassment claims. Susan Grundmann runs that office.

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SUSAN TSUI GRUNDMANN: This is the process the Congress designed in 1995, a process that not only demands confidentiality but strict confidentiality under the law.

DAVIS: Their message was clear. They follow the law as Congress wrote it under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. If Congress doesn't like it, they need to change the law. That's what lawmakers like Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock say they intend to do. One of the parts of the law they want to change is the lack of public disclosure over settlements and when taxpayer funds are used to pay for them.

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BARBARA COMSTOCK: But I think the public has a right to know that going back and certainly going forward how we can improve that transparency.

DAVIS: At least two lawmakers are known to have recently used taxpayer funds to settle complaints through this process. The complaints were sealed by law, but they were leaked to the media. Michigan Democratic Congressman John Conyers paid $27,000 in taxpayer money to settle a harassment complaint from a former female aide. Conyers resigned this week over the fallout from those allegations.

Texas Republican Blake Farenthold paid $84,000 in taxpayer money for a sexual harassment settlement to his former communications director. When it was made public, Farenthold announced he would cut a personal check to pay the Treasury back. Farenthold told Corpus Christi TV station KRIS that he's frustrated by the process, too.

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BLAKE FARENTHOLD: I wish I could have said something Friday. The House lawyer - I went to the House lawyer and said, what can I say? And they said, nothing.

DAVIS: There's broad agreement that lawmakers should be required to pay settlements for bad behavior out of their own pockets, but how much the public should get to know about the details is more complicated. Here's Gloria Lett again.

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LETT: There is a tension there. Oftentimes employees want that confidentiality because they want to go and they want to get other jobs. Certainly members of Congress want that confidentiality because even if a member or the office has done absolutely nothing wrong, putting that information out into the public can certainly hurt.

DAVIS: Lawmakers are also considering whether there should be a mandatory mechanism to notify the House Ethics Committee when complaints are filed. Under current law, there's no requirement to loop them in. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.