House sexual harassment overhaul sidelines ethics watchdog

House sexual harassment overhaul sidelines ethics watchdog
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Bipartisan legislation released earlier this week to overhaul Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies would prevent an independent ethics watchdog from reviewing complaints.

The bill, unveiled Thursday, contains a provision that would prevent the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) from initiating investigations of alleged harassment if a claim is filed with the updated reporting system.

Instead, harassment claims would have to be automatically referred to the House Ethics Committee for potential discipline, with no ability by OCE to review.

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But government transparency groups like Issue One warn that the legislation undermines OCE and limits transparency.

The OCE was created in 2008 as an independent, nonpartisan entity to add a layer of accountability to the House ethics process. Then-Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiIsrael boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate McConnell predicts no shutdown: Trump 'flexible' on border deal Ocasio-Cortez had highest percentage of small donors in midterms: report MORE (D-Calif.) led the push to create the OCE as part of a congressional ethics reform package in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and violations by former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

Government transparency advocates argue that members of the House Ethics Committee can’t be counted upon to hold their colleagues accountable as well as an independent watchdog like the OCE.

“This is alarming given the Committee’s poor track record when it comes to committing to a timely, publicly accountable process,” Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee said in a statement.

The OCE has the power to investigate allegations against lawmakers, but lacks the authority to dole out punishments or issue subpoenas. It can make recommendations to the Ethics Committee as to whether a case should be investigated or dismissed.

The Ethics Committee then decides the next steps. But reports by OCE must be publicly released after a certain amount of time has passed, unless the Ethics Committee decides to open an investigation of its own. The OCE report, however, would still have to be publicly disclosed at the end of an investigation.

The bipartisan overhaul of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies came after multiple male lawmakers were accused of sexual harassment. Female lawmakers, including an author of the legislation, Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierCongress strikes deal on bill for sexual harassment cases involving lawmakers Dem lawmaker: Trump Jr. lied to Congress on two occasions House Dems plan to re-interview witnesses from Russia probe MORE (D-Calif.), also shared their own stories of being sexually harassed while working on Capitol Hill.

The latest lawmaker to be accused of sexual harassment is Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), after The New York Times reported Saturday that he used taxpayer money to settle a complaint from a former staffer. 

Following the New York Times report, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown Missing: Fiscal sanity in Washington On The Money: Latest on border wall fight | Dems prep for long shutdown | Trump finds himself isolated | Stocks sink ahead of Fed meeting, funding deadline | Trump offers new round of farm aid MORE (R-Wis.) moved to strip Meehan from his position on the House Ethics Committee and urged him to reimburse taxpayers for the settlement.

The harassment overhaul bill would end the practice of taxpayer-funded settlements for lawmakers accused of harassment. Any member of Congress accused of harassment who agrees to a settlement would be required to reimburse taxpayers within 90 days.

Another House Republican, Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy Congress strikes deal on bill for sexual harassment cases involving lawmakers MORE (R-Texas), also acknowledged recently that he agreed to an $84,000 settlement after a former aide, Lauren Greene, accused him of sexual harassment. Farenthold has said he will take out a personal loan to repay taxpayers.

Farenthold is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. But the OCE had previously reviewed Greene’s claims and concluded in 2015 that there was not substantial reason to believe Farenthold sexually harassed Greene.

According to a GOP aide familiar with the crafting of the legislation, Farenthold’s case led to the provision concerning OCE. Greene’s legal counsel had said that the OCE investigation “unduly harmed” Greene’s case in litigation, which led the House Administration Committee to include the provision in the bill.

Speier called the OCE “a dead letterbox for complaints.”

A spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee said that limiting investigations to the Ethics Committee would streamline the process.

“The provision ensures that only one entity is conducting the investigation to make certain there is an accurate gathering of facts and a swift reporting of those findings,” the spokeswoman said.

But McGehee warned that the provision bore a resemblance to the effort by House Republicans a year ago to weaken the OCE by putting it under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee. Republicans ultimately reversed course following public outcry.

“This covert move is reminiscent of House leadership’s behind-closed-doors effort to sabotage OCE at the beginning of the 115th Congress,” McGehee said.