House Ethics panel continues probe of Dem Rep. Hastings

The House Ethics Committee moved on Wednesday to continue its probe of Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) over allegations that he sexually harassed a staff member. 

The secretive panel said it needed more time to “gather additional information” in the preliminary investigation, and that it would not make any further public announcements until it was finished. 

 The committee declined to launch a formal investigation into the allegations raised by Winsome Packer, who served as a policy adviser to Hastings as he co-chaired the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). 

This is the third time in six months that Ethics has opted to continue an investigation into a member of Congress. 

The committee also moved to continue probes of Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) without creating an investigative subcommittee. It has been five months since the Meeks announcement and less than two months since the Jackson move. 

Ethics Committee Rule 18(a) allows it to gather more information without setting up a deadline for a final decision. 

Packer alleges she received “unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwelcome touching by Mr. Hastings,” according to a separate lawsuit filed on Packer’s behalf by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last year. 

Hastings has vehemently denied the charges and heralded the Ethics Committee’s decision on Wednesday as a step toward proving his innocence. 

“As I have said repeatedly since this matter first came to my attention, I unequivocally deny the allegations made by Ms. Packer,” he said in a statement. 

“The acts alleged are contrary to my character and to the main objective of my career in Congress, advancing the civil rights of all people. 

“Furthermore, Ms. Packer’s allegations are completely false. I never had a romantic or sexual interest in her, nor did I ever express or otherwise suggest that I had any such interest.” 

According to the Ethics Committee’s rules, the chairman and ranking member on the panel may “jointly gather additional information” concerning allegations against a member until an investigative subcommittee is formed. 

The matter was referred in September to the Ethics Committee by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), an advisory board made up of former lawmakers, House officers and lawyers. 

The lawsuit against Hastings has come to a relative standstill in federal court, with the last documents being filed in September after attorneys for the lawmaker requested that the charges be dismissed. The court might have decided to give precedence to the Ethics Committee’s probe, as many of the same witnesses are likely to be interviewed in both cases. 

Both the court and the Ethics panel are likely to take into consideration a letter written to the Justice Department by the House Office of the General Counsel and the Office of House Employment Counsel (OHEC) in which, after their own investigation, they dispute the charges against the lawmaker and request that Hastings be provided with federal counsel. 

The letter, sent on Feb. 15, 2011, states: “OHEC’s investigation shows that while some of Ms. Packer’s allegations begin with a kernel of truth, when looked at in context, Ms. Packer grossly distorts the events and circumstances in order to support a fiction that she experienced unlawful sexual harassment and retaliation. Based on OHEC’s review to date, we do not believe that Ms. Packer experienced sexual harassment.” 

Hastings pointed to the letter as evidence that he was not guilty. 

“I look forward to the Committee on Ethics’ review of these bogus charges, and am confident that it will conclude, as have the General Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the House Employment Counsel and the United States Justice Department, that the claims are false,” Hastings said in a statement. 

The civil lawsuit filed against Hastings is still pending. 

Packer claims that from 2008 to 2010 Hastings made repeated sexual advances toward her and that she was “particularly vulnerable to such threats because she was a Republican working for the Democratically controlled commission,” according to the lawsuit. 

Packer has spoken on Jamaican television shows about the sexual harassment allegations while promoting her novel, titled A Personal Agenda. The book centers on the murder of a black ex-congressman who had troubles with corruption and extramarital affairs. 

“A Personal Agenda seeks to provoke its readers by examining racial tensions, corruption and sexual harassment in Congress, as well as the impact of immigration to the U.S. and other nations,” a press release states.

This story was posted at 11:31 a.m. and updated at 4:19 p.m. and 8:11 p.m.