The Treasury Department paid about $174,000 over five years to settle claims that included allegations of sexual harassment or sex discrimination in House member offices, including an $85,000 settlement in a claim against former congressman Eric Massa, The Washington Post confirmed Tuesday.
The payment was one of 15 settlements involving House offices between 2008 and 2012, according to data released Tuesday by a House committee. The data omitted details of the cases, but it was the latest attempt by the House to be transparent in reporting how frequently claims involve accusations of sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
The claims involved a total taxpayer cost of $342,225, with about $174,000 pinned to specific harassment or discrimination claims.
The Treasury payments, however, offer only a partial accounting of money used to deal with sexual harassment allegations. Some House members have used office funds to pay “severance” packages to employees in an effort to resolve potential or existing workplace claims.
Massa (D-N.Y.)resigned in March 2010 amid allegations that he had groped and tickled male staff members.
The $85,000 settlement, confirmed by two sources with direct knowledge of the matter, was negotiated after the accuser filed a claim through the congressional Office of Compliance. The 2010 payment came from a Treasury account that has recently come under scrutiny for providing taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment and other complaints against lawmakers.
James D. Doyle, an attorney for Massa, said Massa can neither confirm nor deny any specific Office of Compliance “settlements alleged to have arisen during his tenure due to the fact that he neither consented to nor authorized any such settlements and therefore has no direct knowledge.”
Lawmakers and their offices are represented by the Office of House Employment Counsel throughout the settlement process.
“If Rep. Massa were to have retained discretion and authority in any matter alleging personal misconduct on his part he would have asserted a vigorous defense,” Doyle said in a statement. “Rep. Massa denies any incident of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination as a Member of Congress or otherwise individually.”
The information sheds additional light on the system lawmakers use to quietly manage workplace complaints against them and their staff members.
The Office of Compliance, which only recently started to disclose data on workplace settlements involving lawmakers, previously disclosed the existence of six settlements out of the Treasury fund between 2013 and this year, totaling $359,450. Only one complaint to the office, which runs a mandatory counseling and mediation process, in the past five years involved a claim of sexual harassment.
However, little is known about settlements involving Senate offices.
On Monday night, the Office of Compliance rejected a request from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), for records of complaints and settlements that do not violate confidentiality requirements. Kaine had said he would publicly release any data he receives.
Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, cited confidentiality requirements that restricted the office’s recordkeeping, and declined to provide the limited information the office does have, saying it “may contain inaccuracies.”
Kaine said Tuesday that he finds the office’s response “very, very puzzling” and “a dodge.” The office did not respond to The Post’s request for more explanation.
“You cannot solve a problem if you don’t have an idea about the scope of the problem,” Kaine told reporters Tuesday. “You can’t expect us to have an oversight role and appropriately deal with this issue without giving us the data about what claims there have been in the last 10 years.”
The Office of Compliance, however, has sent settlement breakdowns from 1997 to 2017 upon request to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which has oversight authority over the Office of Compliance on the Senate side.
It is unclear whether the Senate committee will release the data anytime soon, or at all. A committee spokeswoman said Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) is “concerned with the reliability of the data provided by the Office of Compliance and the extent to which that data may implicate the various confidentiality requirements of the Congressional Accountability Act,” the law that governs the current complaints process.
Amid a recent national reckoning over sexual harassment, Congress has been criticized for the hurdles that face employees who file complaints and the strict secrecy rules governing settlements.
Since October, seven members of the House and the Senate have resigned or announced plans not to run for reelection amid allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct. Some reached settlements, either through the Treasury fund or by providing payments in the form of severance.
The latest data was released as part of the Committee on Administration’s review of workplace policies in the House. No data has been released about settlements involving Senate offices.
“As I have stated from the beginning . . . one case of sexual harassment is one case too many. We must create a culture within our Capitol Hill community that instills in every employee and employer, new and old, that there is no place for sexual harassment in the halls of Congress,” Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), the committee’s chairman, said in a statement.
The House committee plans to release draft legislation for an overhaul of the Congressional Accountability Act as soon as this week.
In a meeting Tuesday, the House Administration Committee adopted regulations written by committee staff members to make harassment training mandatory for all lawmakers, staff members and interns.
Rules specify that the training must be done in person for at least an hour, focus on creating a more civil workplace, and address the prevention of harassment, discrimination and retaliation. There is a limited exemption for employees who do not work in Washington to participate in a webinar or videoconference.
The resolution also calls for a survey of lawmakers and staff members to assess the climate of the congressional workplace and the effectiveness of current laws.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said the survey results will help members determine how to implement future training and what other changes may be needed.
Through the disclosure earlier this month of settlements involving House offices, a 2014 agreement was later confirmed to have been reached between Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) and his former communications director, who accused him of harassing her and then firing her after she complained. Farenthold has denied the allegations, but he recently apologized for fostering a permissive and inappropriate workplace culture, and announced that he would not seek reelection.
The Treasury fund, which was created under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, has paid more than $17 million for 264 settlements and awards involving offices on Capitol Hill. The settlements responded to a variety of workplace claims, including disability and age discrimination, and involved both lawmakers’ offices and other bodies, such as the Architect of the Capitol.
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.