Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) used $84,000 in taxpayer dollars to settle with a former aide who sued him for sexual harassment in 2014, The Washington Post confirmed Friday.
Farenthold is the first member of Congress confirmed to have benefited from a little-known Treasury Department fund created to cover workplace settlements involving lawmakers. The congressional Office of Compliance (OOC) disclosed Friday that the fund paid for only one sexual harassment settlement involving a House lawmaker’s office in the past five years, but did not name Farenthold.
The congressman’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, accused him of making sexually charged comments designed to gauge whether she was interested in a sexual relationship. She filed suit in after going through the OOC’s counseling and mediation process. Farenthold denied wrongdoing in the case.
The revelation sheds new light on the secretive process that lawmakers use to settle workplace complaints against them and their aides using public funds. In total, the Treasury fund has paid for settlements related to six claims against House members' offices since 2013, the OOC wrote in a letter Friday to the Committee on House Administration. The five complaints not pertaining to sexual harassment alleged one or more forms of employment discrimination and in some cases, retaliation, the letter stated.
The fund is not the only source of settlement payments for lawmakers accused of misconduct. Members such as Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) have used their office budgets to settle — and conceal — complaints. Settlements reached using this method are not tracked, and they are difficult to identify, even in congressional offices’ payment records.
The House Ethics Committee, requesting documents from the OOC, indicated Friday that it will review all formal claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct involving members and employees of the lower chamber.
That review — the committee’s first major action following a public outcry over sexual harassment in Congress — will encompass all current members and employees of the House who have been the subject of complaints, not just those who paid settlements through the Treasury fund.
The Senate Ethics Committee on Friday requested the Office of Compliance provide a same settlement breakdown for the Senate.
Also included in the list of settlements was a $150,000 confidential agreement over a claim of veterans status discrimination and retaliation. The Post confirmed that the settlement involved the House Select Committee on Benghazi, its then-chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and a former investigator, Bradley Podliska, who alleged that he was wrongfully fired because he took leave for Air Force reservist duty and refused to focus his work on Hillary Clinton.
Ethics watchdog groups welcomed the request as a sign that the panel might wield its power to address mounting allegations of misconduct on Capitol Hill.
“A nice change of pace to see the Ethics Committee asserting its jurisdiction,” Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit focused on government ethics, wrote in an email. “Usually they are looking for ways to avoid taking on hard questions, hoping the member leaves or burying the allegations until the ‘heat’ goes away.”
Under the law, the executive director of the Office of Compliance has authority to share records of hearings and decisions with the House and Senate ethics committees. The executive director can share all written and oral testimony from hearings and decisions, but not information discussed in mediation.
Laura Cech, spokeswoman for the OOC, said the office’s current officials do not recall ever providing records of hearings or decisions to congressional ethics committees.
It is not clear whether Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and ranking Democrat Ted Deutch (Fla.), who requested records from the OOC on Friday, plan to make them public or use the information to investigate lawmakers who have been accused of misconduct.
The panel is also probing allegations that Conyers behaved inappropriately toward multiple female aides. House Democratic leaders, as well as a number of rank-and-file members, have called for him to resign over the harassment allegations.
The Ethics Committee’s request and the details about the OOC settlements drew a wave of interest on Friday.
Alexis Ronickher, a Washington employment lawyer who has represented congressional employees in workplace complaints, said the settlement figures released Friday show how little money clients like hers recover compared to the private sector.
In addition, she argued, there are considerable emotional and professional risks involved in bringing a claim against a lawmaker.
Greene, the former staffer who sued Farenthold, is now “publicly identified as going against and asserting claims against a member of Congress, and her name throughout the Internet is associated with this,” Ronickher said. “It’s very hard to build a life after that.”
She added that “$84,000 is a very, very modest recompense, particularly given the types of conducts that are being alleged . . . These congressional staffers are not being made whole, whatsoever.”
The Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Farenthold in September 2015 that was still pending as of Friday.
Farenthold has come under fire for comments he made about women, most recently during debates over the health-care overhaul this summer. Farenthold said he would challenge some Republican "female senators from the Northeast" to a duel, if they were men from South Texas, for opposing health-care legislation at the time.
Neither the congressman nor Greene’s lawyer, Les Alderman, would confirm that they were involved in the $84,000 settlement.
“While I 100% support more transparency with respect to claims against members of Congress, I can neither confirm nor deny that settlement involved my office as the Congressional Accountability Act prohibits me from answering that question,” Farenthold said in a statement.