Mel Watt's accuser describes sexual harassment claims in stunning testimony

Mel Watt's accuser describes sexual harassment claims in stunning testimony
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A Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) employee who has accused Director Mel WattMelvin (Mel) Luther WattReport finds federal housing agency official 'abused her authority' Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform should put American taxpayers first Watchdog: Former Rep. Mel Watt attempted to 'coerce' employee into relationship MORE of sexual harassment described her allegations Thursday in gripping testimony before a House committee.

Simone Grimes, a special adviser at FHFA, told lawmakers that Watt made dozens of sexual advances toward her, withheld a promised pay raise over her refusal of his advances and was protected by senior agency officials charged with investigating her accusations.

Grimes told the House Financial Services Committee that the FHFA’s Office of Inspector General responded to her claims with “hostility, intimidation, bullying, laden with gossip and public shaming” and sought to protect Watt throughout the process.

“Not only are you hurt by what has happened, but you quickly learn that all of the agency mechanisms that you hope have a sympathetic ear are not only slightly hostile, but make it clear that they’re not there to support you, but defend their client no matter what their client has done,” Grimes said.

Lawmakers in both parties praised Grimes for coming forward, expressing sympathy and pledging to support her efforts to seek justice.

“She deserves to be heard and she needs to be heard,” said Committee Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingLawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank House passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell Has Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? MORE (R-Texas).

Grimes alleged that Watt routinely sexually harassed her, starting in September 2015, with comments about her appearance and his attraction to her. Grimes had been seeking a pay raise that she said she was promised after taking on a new position, and that Watt regularly tied her compensation and advancement within FHFA to her refusal of his sexual advances.

“There was a clear correlation between the two,” Grimes said, adding that Watt made her feel “uncomfortable,” “unsafe” and “diminished to just an object.”

Grimes recorded audio from encounters with Watt in which he made inappropriate remarks, and has shared those tapes with reporters. Grimes said she informed Watt that he was being recorded, but that he appeared to not believe her.

Watt, a former Democratic congressman, has denied the allegations and refused to cooperate with internal investigations into Grimes’s claims. He is scheduled to testify before the committee Thursday afternoon.

Grimes also said that the FHFA inspector general (IG) and human resources department sought to protect Watt, hindered her ability to hold him accountable and halted her advancement within the agency.

Grimes said the FHFA inspector general’s decision to name her in a subpoena for records regarding her claim was particularly cruel, and imposed severe financial and emotional costs. Alleged victims of sexual assault are not typically named in complaints out of respect for their privacy.

“It was a shameful tactic by the IG to name me,” Grimes said, adding that the office “has taken the posture that they are there to defend the agency and its senior staff regardless of what they’ve done.”

FHFA Inspector General Laura Wertheimer told the committee that Grimes sent a detailed account of her complaint against Watt and recordings of their encounters to more than 100 agency managers using her office computer and email account.

Wertheimer said that FHFA attorneys were told they needed to name Grimes in their subpoena for the records by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which has jurisdiction over the agency.

“We wanted to file that motion under seal,” Wertheimer said. “We have court rules we must follow. The assistant U.S. attorneys handling this matter were told we could not file this under seal given the facts presented to them, which they would disclose to the court.”

Several Democrats questioned Wertheimer’s explanation and urged the FHFA to protect employees filing sensitive complaints.

“There has to be something to protect the person who came forward,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).