Sen. Max Baucus's former chief of staff, Christine Niedermeier, has accused the Montana Democrat of firing her after she spurned repeated sexual advances by him--an allegation that Baucus has categorically denied.
The accusation was made late last week by Niedermeier through her attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, who said Baucus fired his top aide last month "in retaliation for her complaints of sexual harassment by him" after she asked him to stop the conduct.
In a public statement and letters to his colleagues yesterday, the four-term senator, who is 57 and married, said he "never, under any circumstance, sexually harassed" Niedermeier, who is 47 and single.
Baucus said he had received numerous complaints about her "management style" but tried to "give her every opportunity" to work things out. "In August, when I asked her to step down, I hoped that she would use the opportunity to seek new employment. Instead she chose this direct and false assault, which, frankly, shocked me," Baucus said.
Bredehoft said her client has not decided whether to file a formal complaint under Senate grievance procedures but was making the allegation public "to clear her name . . . she did not want him to be able to claim she was incompetent." Senate rules provide for mediation and other services before a lawsuit can be initiated.
The harassment did not involve "touching or explicit conduct" but included "suggestions of interest beyond a working relationship . . . overly complimenting her on her appearance to an embarrassing degree, asking about her dating, her personal life . . . suggesting they go away for a weekend," Bredehoft said.
She said U.S. Capitol Police officers prevented Niedermeier from entering Baucus's office to retrieve her personal belongings, including what she described as e-mail messages in which Baucus praised her work and made sexually suggestive comments. At one point, an officer pulled out handcuffs in what Bredehoft described as a "threatening gesture."
Jean Manning, who represents Baucus in her capacity as the Senate's chief counsel in employment disputes, said Niedermeier was fired because Baucus faced a "mass exodus" of staff from his office if she continued in her job. Many complained to Baucus about her "verbally abusive" management style and some said they were planning to quit, she said.
Eventually 36 of Baucus's 39 employees signed a petition suggesting "he had a problem and had to do something about it," she said. Those who did not sign were either away or did not have contact with Niedermeier, she added.
"It certainly appears to us that . . . she fabricated these allegations because she was being terminated," Manning said.
Bredehoft aired the allegations last week to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, after its reporters started making inquiries into reports about Niedermeier's dismissal.
Manning contended that Niedermeier has been offered numerous opportunities to return to Baucus's office to pick up her belongings. Bredehoft said attempts to do so have been thwarted.
Niedermeier's job performance in the 16 months since she became Baucus's chief staff member is also a matter of contention. Disputing Baucus's reference to complaints about her management style, Bredehoft said that Baucus complimented Niedermeier on her work as recently as Aug. 2--two weeks before Baucus told her to seek other employment.
Niedermeier worked on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, served as an official in Connecticut and ran twice without success for a U.S. House seat from Connecticut in the 1980s. She has never before made a sexual harassment complaint, according to Bredehoft.