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How a congressional harassment claim led to a secret $220,000 payment

Winsome Packer had a plum overseas assignment, an apartment in Vienna and a six-figure salary as an adviser to a Washington congressman when it all came crashing down.

Her boss, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), suggested that he should stay with her when he was visiting Austria, she claimed. He made comments she considered sexually suggestive and hugged her in a way she felt inappropriate.

Hastings denies that he harassed her, and one of his attorneys claims Packer created "a fiction" with her accusations, which were made under a process Congress set up to handle sexual harassment claims against its members.

The contentious case dragged on for four years, and in the end Packer was awarded $220,000 in one of the largest secret settlements paid out in recent years by the congressional Office of Compliance.

But both sides say the process is unfair and abusive to the accuser and the accused. Packer said she has not recovered from the harrowing legal fight, and Hastings said his reputation was damaged. As lawmakers prepare to unveil bipartisan legislation as early as this week that would alter the current system for handling such claims, both Packer and Hastings said their dispute reveals a broken law that must be fixed.

Packer lost her job and is unemployed. She had to agree not to discuss her case, but she recently broke the pledge, calling it "a license to abuse and demoralize the victim completely."

Winsome Packer explains why she believes members of Congress accused of sexual misconduct will never change their behavior. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Hastings believes Packer should never have received a settlement, which he said he played no role in negotiating.

"The way it is being framed is I participated in something secret," Hastings said in a recent interview. "I wasn't in the mediation session. I wasn't part of the settlement negotiations. I secreted nothing. We need greater transparency. I personally have no objections to releasing any and all information."

House Employment Counsel lawyers, who represented Hastings, declined to discuss the case because of the confidentiality agreement. However, a June 12, 2014, memo from that office shows the lead attorney on the case believed the system allowed for "manufactured legal extortion."

The attorney said Packer took a "kernel of truth" about Hastings's sexually tinged comments but "grossly distorted events and circumstances in order to create a fiction that she experienced sexual harassment and intimidation," the document says. For example, the attorney alluded to an incident in which Hastings told Packer he had trouble sleeping after sex, which Hastings said he shared only because he believed they were friends, not because he was pursuing her sexually.

In the end, Packer's doggedness played an outsized role in her securing a larger-than-average settlement, documents and interviews show. She refused to settle early, pressed forward with a lawsuit and represented herself when she could no longer afford an attorney.

A flawed process

Settling sexual harassment cases on Capitol Hill is risky for members, whose careers can derail if allegations become public, and for accusers confronting a system that victims' advocates argue protects the powerful.

The process may run up tens of thousands of dollars in private legal bills for both parties and consume months or years of staff time.

And there is no accountability for the use of taxpayer funds to settle cases. Strict confidentiality required under the law keeps secret the names of members and terms of settlement agreements.

Congress is now considering amending the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, the law governing how harassment cases are handled on Capitol Hill, after seven members have either resigned or said they would not seek reelection in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Attorneys who handle these cases say most staffers take no action because they fear it could hurt their careers.

The claim Packer brought against Hastings in 2010 illustrates flaws in the process and the bitter aftereffects it can have on both the accuser and the accused.

Packer said running up $20,000 in legal bills caused her to lose her Virginia home to foreclosure as the case wound its way through the congressional Office of Compliance, two House ethics inquiries and a federal court.

Hastings said he was also damaged by what he called a "ludicrous" claim. His defense cost him $40,000, he said.

The Democratic member hired Packer, a Republican with foreign policy expertise, in May 2007 when he chaired the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Located on Capitol Hill, the commission is a federal agency run by Congress and promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation in Europe, Eurasia and North America.

On Capitol Hill, pressure grows for more transparency in harassment cases

For nine months, Packer was Hastings's policy adviser on the commission staff. Then he promoted her to a foreign post in Vienna. Her salary more than doubled, to $165,000 from $80,000, court records show.

Packer claimed that the sexual harassment began in January 2008, shortly after her promotion. She said Hastings told her many times that he wanted to stay with her in Vienna. Hastings denied the conversations.

"I ignored him at first, hoping he would see I wasn't interested," Packer said in an interview.

Packer said that within months Hastings's advances became more overt. During a July 2008 business trip to Kazakhstan, Packer said, she was instructed to report to a hotel hospitality suite shortly after she landed at 4 a.m. Hastings was waiting for her, she said.

"I went up there, and the first thing he did was grab me and press himself up against me. Then he pressed his face against mine," Packer said in an interview. "I reminded him that this was inappropriate. It was the first time I told him explicitly."

Her lawsuit claims that the harassment continued over two years and that she reported numerous incidents to Hastings's chief of staff, Fred Turner, asking him to intervene. In her lawsuit, she said Turner spoke with Hastings but the harassment continued. When she continued to complain, she said Turner retaliated against her by marginalizing her at work, including limiting travel and reassigning much of her work. Turner did not respond to requests for comment, but he previously denied to congressional investigators that he retaliated or that he received early reports of Packer's complaints, according to a House Ethics Committee report.

In February 2010, Packer said she sought help from the office of Rep. Christopher H. Smith, (R-N.J.), who served with Hastings on the commission, and was referred to the Office of Compliance. The office was established by the Congressional Accountability Act as a place for legislative branch employees to file workplace claims, including sexual harassment allegations.

Packer filed a formal complaint against Hastings on Aug. 9, 2010. Under the law, she had to agree to up to 30 days of confidential counseling to get advice on her rights and options for pursuing a complaint. Counselors in the Office of Compliance are forbidden under the law from advocating for the victim in sexual harassment cases, including making lawyer referrals.

Smith said he is legally prohibited from discussing most details of Packer's case but acknowledged his office helped ensure Packer's case was fairly handled.

House lawyers at first argued that Packer's claim was not covered by the Congressional Accountability Act. Because Packer's employer was an independent federal agency led by Congress, rather than a member office or a congressional committee, House lawyers said she did not have standing to file a claim under the law that protects legislative-branch employees. Smith said he successfully argued otherwise, pointing to a law that says commission staff members should have the same "rights and privileges" as congressional employees.

"My job was to make sure due process was real," Smith said. "I think (House lawyers) thought they could wear her down."

Smith said Packer still faced unfair odds. At this stage, taxpayers were funding Hastings's legal representation through the Office of House Employment Counsel. Packer had to hire her own attorney, George Chuzi, to represent her in the next phase under the process — mandatory mediation.

Smith said that needs to change. "Part of any reform needs to include providing competent counsel to the accuser, at no cost to them," he said.

Mutual dissatisfaction

Mediation is not mandatory for most federal or private sector employees who bring harassment complaints. But congressional employees must agree to 30 days of mediation if their case is handled by the Office of Compliance. The goal, congressional officials say, is to amicably resolve conflicts and keep them out of court.

Officials say they have worked to make the process easier for employees.

"It is not required that the employee attend," said Barbara Childs Wallace, chair of the Office of Compliance Board of Directors, at a congressional hearing in November. "It is not required that they sit in the same room with the person they are accusing, of sexual harassment, for instance."

But Packer and one of her attorneys described her confidential meetings as bullying sessions in which House attorneys urged her to drop her claim or accept a low settlement.

Winsome Packer explains why she believes signing a non-disclosure agreement leaves those coming forward with accusations at a disadvantage. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

At her first session, she said, Turner, Hastings's chief of staff, was seated beside two House Employment Counsel attorneys for the congressman. Packer said that she protested Turner's presence but that he was allowed to remain. Hastings did not attend.

Presiding over the session was a professional mediator, hired by the Office of Compliance.

Mediation discussions and materials are confidential under the law. But Packer and Chuzi broke the confidentiality agreement to discuss their first mediation session, which they described as combative.

"Their opening line to my attorney was, 'I want you to know your client is a liar and an extortionist,' " Packer said of the House lawyers.

Chuzi said the meeting ended as Packer abruptly stood up and collapsed.

"It was shocking," Chuzi said. "They just unloaded on her. The verbal assaults on her integrity, the threats to expose her went on for 20 minutes. This was supposed to be a mediation meeting, mind you, where both sides came together to discuss a possible resolution. That is not what happened."

House Employment Counsel attorneys Ann Rogers and Russell Gore did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Gloria Lett, the lead attorney in the Office of House Employment Counsel (OHEC), said she was bound by confidentiality and could not discuss the case.

However, Lett said in a statement, "In getting to a resolution, it is not unusual for employees to blame OHEC's attorneys for merely offering a view of the facts that do not support the employee's claims."

The Office of Compliance declined to comment on Packer's case.

Debra Katz, who represented Packer during subsequent mediation sessions, would not discuss the meetings, citing the confidentiality agreement she signed.

However, Katz said in general the system is "stacked against" victims and tends to "re-traumatize them." Katz said attorneys for the lawmakers use intimidation tactics to get accusers to drop their claims, including threats to prolong the process.

"They point out that they have endless resources to defend the members," she said. "And they are quick to point out that they cannot go toe-to-toe with those resources. It's a very disempowering message by design and is made to make victims feel they have no option but to settle their case at an early juncture and what is less than what is fair."

Hastings said he also felt wronged. He was limited in what he could say to defend himself publicly because it appeared the matter was headed to litigation. And, he said, House Employment Counsel attorneys aggressively grilled and investigated him to prepare for a possible lawsuit.

It soon became clear, he said, that he needed his own attorney to ensure that his interests were protected.

"I did not have all the power," he said. "You feel like your life is not in your hands."

Although Hastings was not in mediation sessions, he said in a recent interview that he told House attorneys he opposed settling with Packer: "I did not and do not feel Ms. Packer should be paid a dime."

But House attorneys offered a $20,000 to $25,000 settlement, Packer said, on the condition she resign from her job. Packer said she rejected the offer and filed a lawsuit on March 7, 2011, in D.C. District Court against Hastings, Turner and the commission.

Attorneys with Judicial Watch — a conservative watchdog group — took Packer's court case, representing her pro-bono for the first year. Jim Peterson, the lead attorney, said House attorneys used "scorched-earth tactics" to try to intimidate them and Packer. They also said that the House lawyers could drive up costs because their funds were limitless.

"They weren't just lawyers defending their client. They were hyperaggressive," he said. "They threatened to drive up the costs. They threatened to do discovery in places around the world. It was extraordinary."

The case's resolution

Packer's case then proceeded on two tracks: ethics reviews in Congress and a federal lawsuit. Both processes took twists and turns that dragged on until the end of 2014 — nearly six years after the alleged harassment began.

Along the way, Hastings acknowledged some of the behavior Packer found objectionable, including a crude barroom conversation with Packer and other staff members about underwear worn by members during marathon sessions. He also conceded to congressional investigators that he told Packer he "had difficulty sleeping after sex," according to the ethics report.

However, he denied making overt sexual overtures to Packer.

Meanwhile, a judge hearing Packer's case dismissed charges against Hastings and Turner on a technical issue, leaving only the commission as a defendant, court records show.

By spring 2014, the discovery phase of the case was ramping up, meaning both sides would be forced to hand over emails and other documents that might be critical in the case. Key witnesses, including Hastings and Packer, would be required to testify under oath.

Negotiation points and decision-makers had changed. The commission by then was led by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), so the case switched over to be handled by Senate lawyers. Hastings says he was cut out of the process after it went to the Senate. Cardin and the Senate Chief Counsel Office of Employment declined to comment.

Ultimately, the Senate Employment Counsel handled Packer's out-of-court settlement with the commission in May 2014. The congressional Office of Compliance signed off on the payment.

Winsome Packer reflects on the terms of her settlement with the House Employment Counsel. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Six months later, the House Ethics Committee closed its investigation, clearing Hastings of wrongdoing but admonishing him for "certain conduct that is less than professional." It cited his comments at the bar and about insomnia and sex.

Now, nearly 10 years since the alleged harassment began, both Packer and Hastings said the process was life-altering.

"I'm still answering questions," Hastings said. "Here is the conundrum: I have to live with these accusations whether they are true or not."

Packer is still seeking work, living with her sister in her rented duplex, about 40 miles from Hastings's Florida district offices.

"I lost my career," Packer said. "I lost one-third of my pension. Lost my security clearance. And I lost many of my friends."

Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.