Ethics panel denied details on lawmakers accused of harassment

Ethics panel denied details on lawmakers accused of harassment
© Greg Nash

Members of Congress voiced frustration Thursday that they remain in the dark about exactly how many of their colleagues have been accused of sexual harassment due to confidentiality rules they’re hoping to reform.

The chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksEthics panel asks for details of past harassment cases against serving lawmakers Pelosi amps up pressure on Conyers to resign Pelosi asks Ethics panel if they need additional resources for Conyers probe MORE (R-Ind.), and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchEthics panel asks for details of past harassment cases against serving lawmakers Pelosi amps up pressure on Conyers to resign Pelosi asks Ethics panel if they need additional resources for Conyers probe MORE (Fla.), had asked the office tasked with handling workplace disputes on Capitol Hill to provide records about allegations of sexual harassment and other violations involving current lawmakers and staff.

Brooks expressed frustration that the Office of Compliance is not able to comply with the request from the Ethics Committee as a result of strict confidentiality limitations.

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“So we’re not getting anything,” Brooks said at a House Administration Committee hearing on Capitol Hill’s workplace harassment policies.

Susan Tsui Grundmann, the executive director of the Office of Compliance, explained in a letter to Brooks and Deutch ahead of the hearing Thursday that she could only provide limited access to records for certain cases that resulted in hearings.

Because the Office of Compliance has not conducted any proceeding before a hearing officer or its board of directors related to any current members or staff, it does not have any records that could be provided to the Ethics Committee, she said.

“The law doesn’t allow us to release anything to your committee,” Grundmann said in response to questions from Brooks at the hearing.

Under the Office of Compliance process, congressional staffers seeking to report harassment must go through months of counseling and mediation with the employing office before they can file a formal complaint. They can then proceed with a hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court.

Brooks acknowledged that changing the law to require mandatory reporting of harassment accusations against lawmakers to the House Ethics Committee isn’t a clear-cut answer.

“We obviously want to hold our members to the highest ethical standards and standards of conduct. But it’s difficult to do that if we don’t know about it,” Brooks told reporters.

At the same time, concerns remain over whether that could result in victims declining to report harassment.

“I have mixed feelings about this as well. If you put mandatory reporting in, will that discourage people from coming forward? A lot of times in these cases, you want to ensure that the person coming forward has as many options available to them, as opposed to requiring them to do things,” Brooks said.

Lawmakers are considering a variety of proposals to reform the Office of Compliance process for reporting sexual harassment.

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Elaine Chao: Women can't let harassment hold them back GOP lawmaker says he'll repay cost of harassment settlement MORE (D-Calif.) introduced legislation with Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocrats turn on Al Franken Report: Franken will resign Thursday Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign MORE (D-N.Y.) last month that would overhaul the process by making the counseling and mediation optional, allowing victims to work remotely and establishing a victims’ counsel to provide them with legal advice and representation.

Speier’s bill would also require the Office of Compliance to publish the names of employing offices in cases that resulted in settlements. Lawmakers accused of harassment who agree to settlements would have to reimburse taxpayer.

Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Mueller probe's expenses totaled .7M in early months Pelosi denounces GOP tax reform as 'armageddon' MORE (R-Fla.) has introduced a bipartisan bill that would ban the use of taxpayer funds for settlements where lawmakers or staff are accused of sexual harassment. His bill would also prevent nondisclosure agreements from being a condition of any settlements.

During the House Administration Committee hearing, Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneOvernight Finance: GOP delays work on funding bill amid conservative demands | Senate panel approves Fed nominee Powell | Dodd-Frank rollback advances | WH disputes report Mueller subpoenaed Trump bank records McCarthy: ‘Zero tolerance’ for sexual harassment House conservatives cast doubt on GOP leaders' shutdown strategy MORE (R-Ala.), who practiced employment law before serving in Congress, noted that confidentiality agreements are often key to negotiating resolutions for harassment cases.

“Confidentiality, or the promise of it, helps foster the negotiations, helps foster people coming to a meeting of the minds. How do we resolve that tension here in the public sector?” Byrne asked.

Neither Byrne nor other witnesses before the panel had an answer.

“There is a tension there,” acknowledged Gloria Lett, counsel to the Office of House Employment Counsel. “Oftentimes employees want that confidentiality because they want to go and they want to get other jobs. Certainly members of Congress want that confidentiality because even if a member or the office has done absolutely nothing wrong, putting that information out into the public can certainly hurt.”

The House adopted a resolution last week to require annual sexual harassment awareness training for members and staff, following similar action by the Senate.

The Administration Committee hearing came two days after Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersAbortion-rights group endorses Nadler in race to replace Conyers on Judiciary Democrats turn on Al Franken Michigan state senator to run for Congress MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned from the House following allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women, including former staffers.

BuzzFeed reported that Conyers agreed to a more than $27,000 taxpayer-funded settlement with a former aide who alleged she was fired for refusing his sexual advances. Conyers denied wrongdoing and said he agreed to the settlement to avoid protracted litigation.

The Office of Compliance provided data to the House Administration Committee last week showing that one sexual harassment claim resulted in a settlement since 2013. That settlement of $84,000 was later revealed by Politico to be for allegations against Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdConyers attorney: Congressman won't pay settlement back because it was 'cleared' Farenthold accuser: 'It's been a tough road’ Accuser says GOP lawmaker 'blackballed' her from finding another job after settling sexual harassment suit MORE (R-Texas).

Farenthold has said he will take out a personal loan to reimburse taxpayers.