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 BrooksThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Bold leadership is necessary to curb violence against youth Here are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act MORE (R-Ind.), and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchOvernight Health Care — Presented by The National Council for Mental Wellbeing — FDA panel advises Moderna booster shot for high-risk people Congress comes to the aid of Libyan people, passing bill ordering probe into war crimes and torture Ocasio-Cortez explains 'present' vote on Iron Dome 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.
“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 SpeierDemocrats want to bolster working women, but face tortuous choices Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter celebrate 75th anniversary, longest-married presidential couple Military braces for sea change on justice reform MORE (D-Calif.) introduced legislation with Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers using leadership PACs as 'slush funds' to live lavish lifestyles: report 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 DeSantisRon DeSantisMiami private school orders vaccinated students to stay at home for 30 days as 'precautionary measure' Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo announces bid to be Florida's first Latina governor The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Build Back Better items on chopping block 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 ByrneTrump's Slovenia Ambassador Lynda Blanchard jumps into Alabama Senate race Mo Brooks expresses interest in running for Shelby's Senate seat Ex-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm 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 ConyersThe faith community can help pass a reparations bill California comes to terms with the costs and consequences of slavery Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote 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 FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE (R-Texas).
Farenthold has said he will take out a personal loan to reimburse taxpayers.