Congress is under increasing pressure to open up the secretive process it uses to handle sexual harassment cases brought against its members and its use of taxpayer money over the past two decades to quietly resolve such disputes.
The payments, typically made under promises of confidentiality that prevent accusers from going public, have become a key point of contention as both houses of Congress face growing complaints about sexual harassment or misconduct involving lawmakers. The congressional Office of Compliance has declined to release details about arrangements it has made to settle harassment cases or to disclose specific amounts paid for such claims.
House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said Monday that his panel will push for more transparency on the settlements and a more comprehensive accounting of payments made by lawmakers outside the formal system. Harper’s committee has to sign off on payments made through the Office of Compliance under a formal process set up 20 years ago.
“We want to know what the universe is, but it’s out there in bits and pieces. It’s incumbent in the weeks ahead that we learn what the landscape is,” Harper said. “Do we have the ability to come up with these numbers and divide them into categories without breaking any confidentiality? We have to get to the bottom of that.”
Scrutiny of the settlement process has escalated since a secret agreement involving Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) leaked last week to BuzzFeed. Under pressure from House leaders, Conyers on Sunday stepped aside as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee while awaiting an investigation of his case by the House Ethics Committee.
Tensions are also high on the Senate side, where Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) appeared at a news conference Monday to apologize for his conduct with four women who have accused him of unwanted touching. He has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate his case.
"I know that I've let a lot of people down: people of Minnesota, my colleagues, my staff, my supporters and everyone who has counted on me to be a champion for women," Franken said. "To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry."
Meanwhile, legislation originally co-sponsored by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) now has about a dozen co-sponsors. It aims to add transparency to the reporting and settlement process and would give accusers more flexibility to settle cases without signing nondisclosure agreements. It is unclear when the legislation will be considered for a vote. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
The House this week is expected to vote on legislation requiring anti-harassment training for all lawmakers, aides and interns at the beginning of each session of Congress. The Senate approved a similar training requirement this month.
The Conyers case has raised new transparency questions because his settlement of about $27,000, listed on the payroll as payments to a temporary employee, came from his House office’s operating funds and did not go through the Office of Compliance. The confidential arrangement raised the possibility that other lawmakers have privately worked out settlements without going through the formal process, although no specifics are available.
Lisa Bloom, the lawyer for Conyers’s accuser, is asking the House Ethics Committee to subpoena her client to allow her to testify in the ethics investigation. Bloom also is asking Conyers to release her client from confidentiality requirements that have prevented her from speaking out, even as he publicly denies her claims.
“I think it’s unfair that he is speaking out and saying sexual harassment never took place,” Bloom said Monday. “He is putting his position out there, but she is silenced. I understand that mediation is confidential, that counseling is confidential. To say her entire story should be silenced — that is objectionable.”
Arnold Reed, Conyers’s lawyer, said Monday that the lawmaker does not have unilateral power to release the accuser from a confidentiality agreement. Reed said Conyers would have to first confer with the Office of House Employment Counsel, something he said the lawmaker does not intend to do. “She signed the agreement, and now she is having to live with it,” Reed said.
Reed said that he welcomed the Ethics Committee investigation and that it would provide Bloom’s client with the proper venue to discuss her allegations and have them investigated.
“No one is thwarting anyone from speaking,” he said. “If she wants to express any feelings about why she signed the document, what was her thinking at that time, why didn’t she force it to a trial, she’ll have a chance to do that.”
Melanie Sloan, a high-profile ethics lawyer in Washington who said she was harassed and verbally abused by Conyers when she worked with him in the 1990s, said the Ethics Committee favors the rights of lawmakers over those of victims in such cases.
“The Ethics Committee is a black hole mostly to provide cover for members of Congress,” she said. “The Ethics Committee almost never takes a tough stance against a member of Congress. It seems to be designed to cover a member’s misdeeds.
“He doesn’t want her to be able to talk about this publicly, because if all these allegations were attached to an actual person, it would be much harder for people to dismiss so quickly.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke with Sloan on Monday and released a statement saying that Sloan’s descriptions of Conyers’s behavior were “unacceptable and disappointing. I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
Pelosi said she has not been able to speak with other Conyers accusers, particularly the one who signed the confidential settlement agreement, which Pelosi called a “ridiculous system that must be ended, and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so.”
Confidential settlements can be a double-edged sword, said Lynne Bernabei, who has represented congressional workers in employment claims: They protect victims who wish to remain anonymous, but confidential allegations do not lead to corrective behavior.
The unsigned settlement agreement in the Conyers case published by BuzzFeed News is a “standard, one-sided, overly broad type of agreement that the Office of Compliance requires victims of sexual harassment to sign when they settle these cases,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer in Washington who represents congressional aides in sexual harassment cases.
“Because the process is so broken, people choose to either not engage in the process or, once they engage it, to settle their claims for a fraction of what their claims are worth, because the process is so traumatizing to people,” Katz said. “Who would go through all of this and be muzzled for life for three months’ severance if the system wasn’t stacked [against the victim]? I think the answer is: nobody.”
Lawmakers in recent weeks have come under pressure to improve the workplace culture on Capitol Hill amid reports of lewd comments, unwanted sexual advances and other examples of sexual misconduct that have plagued Congress for decades. On the House side, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) faced controversy recently over nude photos he gave to a former consensual partner that showed up on Twitter, raising questions about his political future.
Also Monday, Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) released a joint statement with a former member of his staff, Lucinda Daniels, who filed a sexual assault lawsuit in 2008 against Green, who then countered by filing his own lawsuit against her. The lawsuits were dropped in December 2008 by both Green and Daniels, who was the director of Green’s field office in Houston at the time of the May 2007 incident.
“In the present climate, we wish to jointly quiet any curious minds about our former and present relationship with one another,” the signed statement said. “We are friends, and have long been friends. At an unfortunate time in our lives, when both of our feelings were hurt, we hastily made allegations and charges against one another that have been absolutely resolved.”
The statement also said the matter was resolved without financial payment to either party.