The House Ethics Committee formally sanctioned Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen (Nev.) and Republican Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) for offenses related to sexual harassment.
Kihuen, whose term is up this year, was accused by three women of improper touching, though he denied the charges. Meadows was sanctioned for not taking proper action against a chief of staff who was accused of sexual harassment by six women, and for continuing to pay him after he’d stopped working for Meadows.
An investigation into Kihuen, once considered a rising Democratic star in Nevada politics, began in December after allegations arose that he’d sexually harassed an employee while campaigning for Congress in 2016 and sexually harassed a lobbyist during his time as a state legislator. A BuzzFeed News report published in December alleged that he made repeated, unrequited requests for dates from his then-campaign finance director and touched her thighs twice without consent.
The report prompted calls for Kihuen’s resignation from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Kihuen said at the time that he would not resign and welcomed an ethics investigation to clear his name. He later announced, however, that he would leave Congress at the end of his first term and not seek reelection.
“I want to state clearly again that I deny the allegations in question,” Kihuen said in a December statement. “However, the allegations that have surfaced would be a distraction from a fair and thorough discussion of the issues in a reelection campaign. Therefore, it is in the best interests of my family and my constituents to complete my term in Congress and not seek reelection."
The House Ethics Committee report, published Friday, says the committee found that Kihuen made “persistent and unwanted advances towards women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.”
Three women, who testified before a subcommittee as a part of the investigation, reported that Kihuen made “unwanted physical and verbal advances towards them between 2013 and 2017,” according to the report. A Washington employee, whose firm worked with Kihuen’s reelection campaign in 2017, testified that he’d touched her lower back and shoulders, repeatedly kissed her on the cheek and suggested that he could “help her career if she was willing to entertain his romantic interests.”
A 2016 congressional campaign staffer for Kihuen and a Nevada lobbyist also testified with similar allegations. The lobbyist said that he’d slid his hand under her dress, grabbed her buttocks and asked her to sit on his lap, according to the report.
Although Kihuen generally denied the allegations, the report notes that “each of the complainant’s allegations were supported by documentary evidence and some of the alleged incidents were corroborated by third-party witnesses.” The report also notes that at least two outside entities were privy to the campaign staffer’s and the D.C. employee’s allegations and approached Kihuen, and his campaign, about the allegations in 2016 and 2017.
In a Friday statement, Kihuen apologized for his actions, though he said he does not agree with aspects of the report:
“After much reflection and introspection, I recognize that regardless of the fact that I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable or disrespected, what matters is how my actions were perceived by the women who came forward. It saddens me greatly to think I made any woman feel that way due to my own immaturity and overconfidence. I extend my sincere apologies to each of these women. Though I do not agree with aspects of the Report, I am thankful the Committee afforded everyone an opportunity to be heard and appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment that I fully cooperated with the investigation.”
For Meadows, the sanctions come after a congressional ethics panel in 2016 said that there is “substantial reason to believe” that he broke House rules by continuing to pay his chief of staff, Kenneth West, after West was no longer an employee of the office.
West is a former GOP rival who Meadows hired as his chief of staff when he joined Congress in 2013. In late 2014, reports began to surface from female staffers in Meadows’s office that West’s behavior was “making them uncomfortable.” Meadows said he would make sure that West was no longer present around the office, but it was unclear in the ensuing months whether West was still employed.
According to the Ethics Committee’s report, numerous female members of Meadows’s staff made complaints about West’s behavior. Six female employees told the committee they experienced unwanted touching from West, and others reported inappropriate staring and said he made unsolicited comments about their appearance.
Meadows apparently put “remedial” measures in place to separate West from his female staff, which were not effective and “risk[ed] unequal treatment of employees based solely on sex,” the committee found. Meadows kept West as his chief of staff until April 2015, according to the report.
Friday’s report said that Meadows’s “failure to take prompt and decisive action to deal with the alleged sexual harassment in his congressional office was troubling to the Committee.” Moreover, the committee found, Meadows violated House rules by failing to take appropriate steps to “ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination.”
In November 2015, Meadows said in a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics that he had terminated West’s employment in May and that he had offered to pay him as an adviser for the sake of a “smooth transition” through August 2015, likening it to “severance pay.”
“The Committee acknowledges that there was little and inconsistent guidance on severance payments available to the House community at the time Representative Meadows paid severance to Mr. West. That said, after Mr. West ended his duties for the congressional office, Representative Meadows continued to pay his salary for two months,” the report reads. “Representative Meadows sought no guidance on whether such payments were permissible and did not obtain anything of discernible value in exchange for those official funds, such as a release of legal claims. Accordingly, the Committee found that Representative Meadows’ payment of severance to Mr. West ran afoul of clause 8.”
According to Friday’s report, the committee found that there was “substantial reason to believe that Representative Meadows retained an employee who did not perform duties commensurate with the compensation the employee received,” a violation of House rules and standards of conduct.
Meadows will be required to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for the $40,625.02 “overpayment” of West.
Both Kihuen and Meadows were reproved by the committee, which Politico notes is the lowest form of punishment it can issue.
In a statement published by Politico, Meadows indicated that he was “thankful” that the review had concluded.
“Three years ago I asked the Committee on Ethics to review the matter surrounding the alleged conduct of my former chief of staff, Mr. West, and I’m thankful their review has now concluded,” Meadows said. “I appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment of the immediate, appropriate, and good faith steps I did take after learning of my staff’s concerns — including immediately separating the chief from the accusers so they never had to interact with him personally during the independent investigation."
An aide told Politico that Meadows “will pay back the severance in full.”