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Exclusive: Ex-Farenthold aide shares new details of vulgar and abusive behavior

CNN logo CNN 12/14/2017 By MJ Lee, CNN National Politics Reporter
Rep. Blake Farenthold speaks to attendees at a 2015 event in Corpus Christi, Texas. © Michael Rekola Rep. Blake Farenthold speaks to attendees at a 2015 event in Corpus Christi, Texas.

A former senior aide to Rep. Blake Farenthold has approached the House Ethics Committee to share a damning account of working for the Texas Republican, with the intent of describing the congressman as verbally abusive and sexually demeaning -- and his congressional office as an intensely hostile environment that drove the aide to physical and emotional distress.

Michael Rekola, who was Farenthold's communications director in 2015, described in an interview with CNN new details of the congressman's abusive behavior. It ranged from making sexually graphic jokes to berating aides -- bullying that Rekola says led him to seek medical treatment and psychological counseling, and at one point, caused him to vomit daily.

One comment from the congressman was especially personal. Rekola was about to leave town to get married in July 2015, when, he said, Farenthold, standing within earshot of other staffers in his Capitol Hill office, said to the groom-to-be: "Better have your fiancée b--- you before she walks down the aisle -- it will be the last time." He then proceeded to joke about whether Rekola's now-wife could wear white on her wedding day -- a clear reference, Rekola said, to whether she had had premarital sex.

"I was disgusted and I left. I walked out," Rekola said. Almost immediately after returning from his wedding, he gave his two-weeks notice.

Those crude remarks in the summer of 2015 marked just one of many instances in which Farenthold made sexually charged comments to or in the presence of aides, Rekola said. During the nine months that he worked for the congressman, Rekola said, he was also subject to a stream of angry behavior not sexual in nature -- screaming fits of rage, slamming fists on desks and castigating aides, including regularly calling them "f**ktards."

Elizabeth Peace was hired to help with Farenthold's communications efforts in May 2015 when Rekola was sometimes out of the office to deal with his stomach ailment. Peace, who eventually became a full-time communications director, confirmed in an interview that Farenthold regularly called aides "f**ktards." She also said she was present when Farenthold made the oral sex comment about Rekola's then-fiancée.

"Every staffer in that area heard it," Peace said. "It was the most shocking thing I'd heard him say at that point."

In a response to questions from CNN, Farenthold denied in a statement ever making comments to Rekola about receiving oral sex from his then-fiancée or whether she could wear a white dress. He acknowledged that he regularly referred to aides as "f**ktards," but that it was "in jest, not in anger."

"In hindsight, I admit it wasn't appropriate," Farenthold said. He also denied that he engaged in regular verbal abuse of his staff.

Michael Rekola was Rep. Blake Farenthold's communications director in 2015. © Michael Rekola Michael Rekola was Rep. Blake Farenthold's communications director in 2015. Rekola's interview with CNN is the first time that the 31-year-old Massachusetts native is speaking out to the media since leaving Farenthold's office in September 2015. CNN interviewed Rekola's wife, friends and colleagues, and viewed medical records, photos, correspondence with friends and colleagues and notes in Rekola's journal to help corroborate his story.

With his detailed account of pervasive abuse in Farenthold's office, Rekola is a rare male staffer to come forward with charges of misconduct. Up to this point, the people accusing lawmakers of sexual predation and other improper behavior have almost all been women, though many staffers say Capitol Hill is an often-hostile workplace for men as well.

As a part of his decision to speak out about the congressman, Rekola also approached the House Ethics Committee last week. In an email to a top aide to GOP Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, the chairwoman of the Ethics panel, Rekola wrote that he wished to provide the committee "examples of sexually inappropriate comments" that Farenthold made, and speak about the congressman's "emotionally damaging" and "intimidating" actions. The Brooks aide responded that Rekola's email had been forwarded to the Ethics Committee's investigative staff, according to the exchange that CNN viewed.

The Ethics Committee declined to comment to CNN, per its usual protocol of not commenting on any ongoing investigations. It is currently investigating sexual harassment allegations made by Farenthold's former aide, Lauren Greene. The congressman has previously denied any wrongdoing in the Greene case.

Rekola told CNN that in 2015, the media coverage of Greene's lawsuit against the congressman appeared to fuel Farenthold's erratic and volatile behavior.

A former aide to GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, Rekola started working for Farenthold in December 2014 with an explicit mandate to help create positive headlines for the congressman. Greene's allegations were in the spotlight soon after Rekola started his job, and he said the congressman grew increasingly prone to lashing out at staff.

Minor mistakes or oversights -- a typo or a failure to respond to emails fast enough, regardless of what hour of the day -- could trigger furious outbursts.

"Every time he didn't like something, he would call me a f**ktard or idiot. He would slam his fist down in rage and explode in anger," Rekola said. "He was flying off the handle on every little thing. I couldn't find a way to control it."

Farenthold also frequently made lewd comments about the appearance of women including reporters and lobbyists, Rekola said, remarking on the size of women's breasts and buttocks. Some of Rekola's colleagues joked about being on "redhead patrol" -- a reference to Farenthold's well-known affinity for women with red hair (this detail was also described in Greene's lawsuit against Farenthold).

By spring 2015, Rekola said, he was suffering from deep anxiety and chronic stomach pain. In early April, he was dispatched on a multi-day trip across Farenthold's Texas district. At one community party hosted aboard the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi on April 9, Rekola said, Farenthold berated him about social media posts that he was unhappy with.

Rekola passed out in a bathroom aboard the aircraft carrier. When he came to, he said, he had "unbearable pain" in his stomach. He drove himself to a nearby hospital, with his wife giving him directions on the phone.

Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas appears at a 2015 event aboard the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi. © Michael Rekola Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas appears at a 2015 event aboard the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi.

Farenthold and the congressman's wife visited him at the hospital, Rekola said, and were "super friendly," going out of their way to try to ensure that the hospital took special care of him.

When he returned home to Washington, Rekola underwent medical testing and sought counseling. One doctor who examined him said in one email viewed by CNN that he believed Rekola's recent history of "anxiety, stress, reduction in eating," among other factors, could be a cause of his stomach acid triggered problems.

Two of Rekola's close friends who worked on Capitol Hill at the time told CNN that he confided in them throughout 2015 about Farenthold's abusive behavior and witnessed his deteriorating health. They asked not to be identified to protect their privacy.

"He looked sick," one of the friends recalled. "His skin was sallow. He lost weight. He had trouble eating."

The second friend told CNN that she and Rekola took walks within the Capitol complex and that Rekola would describe Farenthold's bullying.

"The conversations were often about inappropriate things that he would say, whether it was sexual humor or really abusive in terms of shouting and overall anger that's not professional," the friend said. "It's not the way to treat someone else who's working for you."

Rekola described 2015 as the darkest period of his life. He said he was healthy until starting his job at Farenthold's office and began suffering from stomach pains and daily vomiting.

Farenthold said in the statement to CNN Wednesday that he witnessed Rekola's constant struggle with his stomach ailment.

"We accommodated him by giving him time to go to the doctor, letting him work from home, and roughly a year after he left our office, he came in and spoke with a number of my aides, delighted that the doctors had finally found out what was causing his stomach distress," Farenthold said. "It was not stress related, but we recall him saying he was allergic to anything he ate."

Rekola said he visited former colleagues at Farenthold's office a handful of times after leaving his job. He said that he was recently tested for food allergies and is allergic to some things. While there is no way to know for sure the exact cause of Rekola's medical problems, he said his doctor and therapist believed the stomach illness likely stemmed from stress.

Rekola said he thought about quitting constantly. But it was a financial move he and his fiancée could not afford to make at the time, and they decided to stick it out until at least after the wedding. Rekola said he looked for ways to spend as little time on Capitol Hill as possible, particularly when he knew Farenthold would be in the office. He never reported his boss' behavior to the Office of Compliance.

"I made a conscientious effort with my then-fiancée at the time, because our wedding was August 8," Rekola said. "Like any staffer who's been bullied, I knew that the dirty secret is: There's no remedy for staffers like us. Move off the Hill and be silent or risk coming out and being blackballed."

Peace, the communications director who replaced Rekola and no longer works on Capitol Hill, maintains that Farenthold never sexually harassed her. But sexual jokes were a constant in Farenthold's office, she said, as well as comments about women's appearances, including which congresswomen Farenthold found to be unattractive. Peace said the congressman would throw objects in angry bursts, and sometimes wipe all of the objects off of his desk, leaving aides scrambling to clean up the mess.

Even as allegations of sexual misconduct have led to the resignations of three male members of Congress last week -- Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and GOP Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona -- House Republican leaders have not called on Farenthold to leave office. Farenthold settled with Greene, with the former aide receiving $84,000 from a taxpayer fund set up by the Office of Compliance.

Rekola told CNN that he has heard from multiple female friends and colleagues in recent days, encouraging him to share his story. In one text message viewed by CNN, Rekola's friend wrote: "Dude I'm proud of you. There needs to be more people, (especially) guys coming forward and saying this has got to stop, it's not the 1950s anymore where you can play grab ass with all the secretaries."

Rekola said he hopes his story can show that "anyone, not just women, can suffer from either a hostile work environment, bullying or sexual harassment."

"John Adams said always stand on principle, even if you're standing alone," Rekola added. "And I want staffers on Capitol Hill to know that they're not alone."

CNN's Ben Tinker contributed to this report.

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