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Lawmakers seek end to taxpayer-backed sexual harassment settlements

The Hill logo The Hill 12/4/2017 Cristina Marcos
Lawmakers seek end to taxpayer-backed sexual harassment settlements © Provided by The Hill Lawmakers seek end to taxpayer-backed sexual harassment settlements Momentum is building fast in Congress to ban the use of taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment cases - particularly after news that a total of well over $100,000 has been paid in recent cases against lawmakers.

Prohibiting such settlements is proving to be a popular idea among fiscal conservatives and liberal Democrats alike as Congress grapples with how to reform its complicated workplace policies.

Taxpayers were revealed to be responsible for thousands of dollars' worth of settlements in cases involving sexual harassment allegations against Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), as well as ex-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.). Still more cases could emerge.

BuzzFeed reported that Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal suit for more than $27,000 in 2015 with a former female aide who said she was fired because she wouldn't succumb to his sexual advances. Conyers denied wrongdoing and said he settled the case to avoid protracted litigation.

Taxpayer money also funded a $84,000 settlement between Farenthold, who was accused of harassment by a former female aide in 2014, according to Politico. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated the staffer's allegations, but informed the House Ethics Committee that there was "not substantial reason to believe" the accusations.

ABC News further revealed that nearly $100,000 was paid to settle sexual harassment claims from at least two young male aides to Massa, who resigned in 2010 amid an ethics investigation of allegations that he groped and sexually harassed his staff.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) first introduced legislation last month that includes a provision requiring lawmakers accused of harassment to reimburse taxpayers. The Office of Compliance, which handles the harassment reporting process, would have to publish the names of offices involved in cases with settlements and the monetary amounts on its website.

Since the settlement made by Conyers became public, lawmakers have been jumping at the opportunity to introduce or sign onto bills to ban similar uses of taxpayer funds.

Some lawmakers want to go even farther beyond what Speier's bill proposes.

On the first day the House was in session after the allegations against Conyers surfaced, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) unveiled a bill to ban taxpayer funds from being used to pay for settlements resulting from harassment by a lawmaker. Marino's bill would also require the House and Senate Ethics Committees to consider the expulsion of lawmakers who engage in sexual harassment.

"It is unconscionable that Congressman and Senators have taxpayers foot the bill for their disgusting actions," Marino said upon introducing his legislation.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), meanwhile, introduced a bill this week to prohibit the future use of taxpayer money on settlements in cases where lawmakers or staff are accused of sexual harassment. Nondisclosure agreements could no longer be a condition of any settlements under the DeSantis bill, which would also require members and staff who have ever been named in a sexual harassment settlement in the past to reimburse the Treasury - with interest.

DeSantis, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, quickly gained dozens of co-sponsors on his bill from just about every faction across the partisan spectrum. The bill had 53 cosponsors and counting as of Friday, and DeSantis predicted it would rise above 100 this week.

"We haven't even really whipped the bill that hard yet," he said. "There's just a lot of momentum for action."

Despite such momentum, Speier and DeSantis said they've both heard concerns about putting lawmakers or staff on the hook.

Speier said she's gotten pushback on making lawmakers reimburse taxpayers because "some people can't afford it." She countered that lawmakers don't have to worry about it if they "don't engage in that kind of" behavior.

Speier's bill doesn't go as far as making staff accused of harassment reimburse taxpayers, but a spokeswoman said that she is open to discussion as lawmakers debate how to reform Capitol Hill's workplace policies.

DeSantis dismissed concerns that staffers accused of harassment would be unable to afford paying for settlements. He suggested that the most likely staffers to abuse their positions of power and engage in harassment are the ones in senior, well-paid positions, like chiefs of staff.

"I would say that if we unveil these claims, I think you'll find that some of the offenders are not some legislative correspondent. It's going to be mostly chiefs of staff, and people who have authority. I mean, that's why they're doing this," DeSantis said.

"So I think that once we get the data, I don't think the staff issue's going to be as big of a deal because those guys make good money. And they make a lot more when they leave here," he added.

Rank-and-file members of Congress make $174,000 annually, while members of leadership earn more. Senior staff can be eligible for six-figure salaries, though the pay is less than what lawmakers earn.

The House and Senate have both adopted resolutions to require all members and staff to undergo sexual harassment awareness training, which until now had been only optional. But lawmakers are eager to show they're doing more than that.

As part of its review of Capitol Hill's workplace policies, the House Administration Committee will hold a hearing next Thursday to discuss reforms to the 1995 law that created the Office of Compliance reporting and settlement process.

At the end of the day, Speier said, staffers are "not here to be compensated. They're here to be able to pursue public service careers in a hostile-free work environment. That's what they want."

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