A government employee told a House panel on Thursday that Mel Watt, the former North Carolina congressman who now heads the Federal Housing Finance Agency, sexually harassed her for years and prevented her from securing a raise when she rebuffed his advances.
“I felt vulnerable and unsafe,” Simone Grimes, an FHFA supervisory program management analyst, told the House Financial Services Committee in her first public appearance. The harassment made her “extraordinarily uncomfortable,” said Grimes. “I have never in my professional career been diminished to just an object.”
The hearing played out simultaneously as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from Christine Blasey Ford about accusations that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school. “Given what is happening at the end of the other end of the Capitol, as I speak, I am not sure this hearing will be heard, but it should be,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chair of the committee.
Both Grimes and Watt deserve to heard, Hensarling said. “There is something amiss at FHFA and this committee has to get to the bottom of it."
Grimes faced mostly polite, deferential questions from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including several who said they served with Watt during his 21 years in Congress and considered him a friend. “No matter our friendship ... I have a responsibility to ensure that Simone Grimes, who has raised deeply troubling allegations, is heard before this committee,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, who said she had been to Watt’s home and given presents to his first grandchild.
During sometimes combative testimony, Watt denied the accusations and complained that he was only given two days notice that Grimes would be testifying during the hearing, which had originally slated to focus on FHFA’s supervision of two housing giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“I did not take actions, or engage in any conduct involving Ms. Grimes that was contrary to law,” Watt told the committee. “I am disappointed that it appears that Ms. Grimes is now attempting to use my efforts to advise and mentor her” to pursue a legal claim.
Watt clashed with Hensarling, whom he repeatedly interrupted, about his refusal to cooperate with an independent investigation into the allegation conducted by a U.S. Postal Office investigator. Watt said that he was not required to and would cooperate instead with an investigation being conducted by the agency’s inspector general.
“I didn’t do anything to try to obstruct [that] investigation. I just didn’t participate in it,” Watt said. “Why duplicate efforts here?”
Grimes, 44, has said the harassment started when Watt, 73, approached her during a going-away party in 2015, according to a report by an investigative office within the U.S. Postal Service. Grimes told investigators for the agency that she was standing at a snack table with other employees when Watt ushered her away and “asserted that there was an attraction between them that needed to be explored,” according to the report.
Over the next two years, according to the report, Watt repeatedly asked Grimes to meet him outside the office, including inviting her to his vacation home in North Carolina, restaurants, the jazz club Blues Alley and his home. Grimes told the House panel that she agreed to several of the meetings so she could complain that she was being underpaid after assuming the responsibilities of another employee who had been promoted.
But the topic of the meetings inevitably would turn to Watt’s attraction to her, Grimes said. In one case, he asked to see a picture of her in a bikini and during another asked her about a tattoo on her ankle. “If I kissed that one would it lead to me?," Watt said in one of 15 records Grimes made of their interactions.
Eventually Grimes said she filed an anonymous FHFA complaint. Then Watt warned her that the “#Metoo movement” has been harmful to some of the women involved, she said. “I found this to be a threat. It was a warning," she said. “I did feel trapped, as if my back was against the wall,” Ms. Grimes said.
“I don’t have a personal vendetta against Director Watt,” Grimes told the committee, saying she believed he had made “sound” decisions as the head of the agency, which oversees a huge swath of the mortgage market. But, she said, “I do not have any reason to believe I am the first … person to experience this with Director Watt.”
Watt told the committee he was disappointed to learn that Grimes had been taping their conversations and questioned whether some of the recordings had been tampered with. “Unlike what is going on in the Senate, this committee cannot resolve this matter,” Watt said, referencing the Kavanaugh hearing.
“I am a big supporter of the #MeToo movement. I think it is a wonderful thing…but it cannot be a substitute for going through the legal process.”
Waters responded that times had changed and that women’s frustrations required Grimes to be heard and the committee to grapple with the issue. “In this atmosphere and in this time where women have come forth, and they have decided that they’re going to step out, they’re going to tell their story" the committee felt compelled to allow Grimes to testify, she said.
“There’s one lesson in all of this, maybe for you, it’s a new day, it’s new time and the old processes don’t work quite well anymore,” Waters said.