Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, was sued by his former communications director over alleged harassment in 2014. Jacquelyn Martin AP file
Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, was sued by his former communications director over alleged harassment in 2014. Jacquelyn Martin AP file

Politics & Government

Taxpayers paid $84,000 to settle sexual harassment complaint against congressman

By Elise Viebeck, Michelle Ye Hee Lee And Kimberly Kindy

The Washington Post

December 01, 2017 12:31 PM

UPDATED December 01, 2017 03:26 PM

WASHINGTON

A little-known Treasury Department fund created to settle workplace claims for members of Congress has paid one settlement over alleged sexual harassment in the last five years, the office that handles workplace claims on Capitol Hill revealed Friday.

In a letter to the Committee on House Administration, the Office of Compliance disclosed that one workplace complaint alleging sexual harassment was settled out of the Treasury fund between 2013 and the present. The Post confirmed that the member behind the $84,000 settlement was Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who was sued by his former communications director over alleged harassment in 2014.

In total, the fund paid for settlements related to six claims against House members’ offices during that time. The five complaints not pertaining to sexual harassment alleged one or more forms of employment discrimination and in some cases, retaliation, the letter stated.

According to Politico, Lauren Greene sued Farenthold in December 2014 over allegations of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. After complaining about comments Farenhold and another male staffer had made to her, Green said, she was fired. She dropped a lawsuit after both parties reached a private settlement, Politico reported.

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The data from the Office of Compliance sheds new light on the secretive process lawmakers use to settle workplace complaints against them and their aides. While claims of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill have grabbed national attention, the data shows that discrimination claims were more likely to be settled out of the Treasury fund in the last five years.

The fund is not the only source of settlement payments for lawmakers. Members like Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., have used their office budgets to settle - and conceal - complaints, a method that hampers public scrutiny.

The House Ethics Committee, requesting documents from the OOC, indicated Friday that it will review all formal claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct involving members and employees of the lower chamber.

That review — the committee’s first major action following a public outcry over sexual harassment in Congress — will encompass all current members and employees of the House who have been the subject of complaints, not just those who paid settlements through the Treasury fund.

Ethics watchdog groups welcomed the move as a sign the panel might wield its power to crack down on mistreatment of congressional aides.

“A nice change of pace to see the Ethics Committee asserting its jurisdiction,” Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, wrote in an email. “Usually they are looking for ways to avoid taking on hard questions, hoping the Member leaves or burying the allegations until the ‘heat’ goes away.”

Under the law, the executive director of the Office of Compliance has authority to share records of hearings and decisions with the House and Senate ethics committees. The executive director can share all written and oral testimony from hearings and decisions, but not information discussed in mediation.

Laura Cech, spokeswoman for the OOC, said the office’s current officials do not recall ever providing records of hearings or decisions to congressional ethics committees.

It is not clear whether Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and ranking Democrat Ted Deutch (Fla.), who requested records from the OOC on Friday, plan to make them public or use the information to investigate lawmakers who have been accused of misconduct.

The panel is also probing allegations that Conyers behaved inappropriately toward multiple female aides. House Democratic leaders, as well as a number of rank-and-file members, have called for him to resign over the harassment allegations.

Conyers was already under investigation by the ethics committee over what an independent ethics monitor described as a potentially improper severance arrangement with a former employee. House Democratic leaders, as well as a number of rank-and-file members, called Thursday for Conyers to resign over the harassment allegations.

Under the law, the executive director of the Office of Compliance has authority to share records of hearings and decisions with the House and Senate ethics committees. The executive director can share all written and oral testimony from hearings and decisions, but not information discussed in mediation.