WASHINGTON – In the secretive system that governs most sexual-harassment settlements in the House, no single lawmaker or committee has a full picture of how many complaints were settled or how much public money was spent to resolve them.
Neither the speaker of the House nor party leaders are briefed on how many offices each year settle harassment complaints, which members are involved or how much they pay.
Neither are leaders of the House Ethics Committee, the body charged with enforcing a high standard of conduct among lawmakers.
The secrecy surrounding Capitol Hill is mandated under a law that shapes how workplace complaints are handled. Confidentiality agreements are routinely signed as part of the arrangements.
While settling cases does not in itself indicate wrongdoing, the lack of disclosure keeps congressional leaders in the dark about behavior by members or staff that might be stopped with earlier intervention.
“There is no transparency,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit focused on government ethics. “How would you even know there was a pattern of misbehavior, by either a member or a staffer?”
Issues with the 20-year-old Congressional Accountability Act, which sets up Congress’ process for handling complaints, will come into focus Thursday at a House hearing on ways to improve the system. Several members have proposed bills that would rewrite parts of the law, responding to a public outcry over sexual harassment and use of taxpayer funds in resolving complaints.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he wants to improve the process for handling sexual harassment and discrimination.
“Real reforms have not been made to this law since it was established in 1995, and our Committee believes reforms are long overdue,” Harper said in a statement.
Questions about the process have been building for weeks since the congressional Office of Compliance said that it had paid out more than $17 million insettlements through a Treasury Department fund set up to handle disbursements for harassment and other workplace complaints in Congress. But the payments were hardly a full accounting of money used to deal with harassment.
Last month, BuzzFeed reported that Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., had used his office budget to settle with a former female aide who accused him of inappropriate touching and unwanted advances. His office disguised the $27,000 settlement in his office payroll. Conyers, who resigned this week, has denied wrongdoing in that case and other similar ones.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in 2015 settled a hostile work environment complaint for more than $48,000 out of the operating budget of a committee he oversaw, according to a report in the Washington Times. Asked for comment, a committee spokesman pointed to an op-ed piece in which he wrote that the woman’s claims about his office were untrue. The two signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from describing the situation further, he wrote.
Both lawmakers have said they acted on advice from the Office of House Employment Counsel, which provides confidential legal advice and representation to lawmakers.
Victims’ advocates and lawmakers pushing to overhaul the system say there is no systematic tracking of how often lawmakers pay employees in exchange for silence about workplace complaints.
Settlements that come through the federal Office of Compliance must then get sign-offs from leaders of the Committee on House Administration, a panel that oversees the chamber’s operations.
The committee’s top Republican and Democrat members are presented with descriptions of each case, without names of the accused or accuser. They review the legal and financial recommendations for each settlement, and weigh how further litigation could pose risks to the House.
A request to pay Conyers’s 2015 settlement was apparently rejected by then-Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who led the Committee on House Administration from 2013 through 2016 and remembers reviewing a settlement for about $27,000.
Miller said she rejected three or four proposed sexual-harassment settlements during her tenure as chairwoman.
If members’ settlements are denied and they decide to pay accusers through their office budgets, committee leaders are not notified, Miller said.
“My posture on that was pretty consistent, which was: ‘You have got to be kidding. You seriously think we’re going to use taxpayer money to cover up these behaviors of Congress?’ ” Miller said. She said she did approve settlements involving other workplace claims, such as age or disability discrimination.
Miller said she once inadvertently discovered the identity of a member whose settlement she had rejected. The member’s aide followed one of her staffers into a bathroom to urge a change of mind. Miller would not identify the member to The Washington Post and could not recall specific details of the case.
“We weren’t supposed to know who it was, so they didn’t tell us who it was,” she said.
The few individuals who know the details and names in each case are taxpayer-funded House attorneys. They negotiate formal and informal settlements on behalf of the member offices, and say they are duty-bound to keep details confidential under attorney-client relationships with each office they represent. But as the recent cases show, lawmakers can waive their client protection and disclose their payments publicly.
Lynne Bernabei, an employment lawyer who has represented congressional employees, said the majority of her cases involving the House were resolved long before her client filed a formal complaint with the Office of Compliance, the office that carries out the required counseling and mediation process for accusers.
In most cases, Bernabei said, the settlements came directly out of the lawmaker’s office budget, known officially as the Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA).
“They were resolved before getting to the official House stage,” she said of the complaints.
The most detail offered by the Office of Compliance comes in its semiannual reports to House and Senate administrative and appropriations committees. But those documents provide little clarity. In its May 2017 semiannual report, obtained by The Post, the office stated that “miscellaneous public” funds were paid for “awards,” without specifying who received the money or which members were involved.
“The speaker has made clear that any report of harassment is deeply troubling, as all House of Representatives employees have the right to feel safe in the workplace,” said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Democratic lawmakers are debating provisions in a wide-ranging bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that aims to increase transparency, including by making public the names of member offices that reach settlements and requiring lawmakers to pay settlements out of their own pockets.
But victims’ advocates have warned that eliminating public funds could decrease the amount of money available to recompense those harmed. Federal agencies, for example, also use public funds in their budgets to pay for settlements, awards or damages.
The proposal aims to prohibit one-sided agreements that can bind only the accuser to silence. But it also aims to allow accusers to request confidentiality if they want their cases to remain private.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, “believes there should be significantly more transparency in this area, and the Congress is finally engaging in significant discussions about how to provide it, keeping the privacy concerns of the victims in mind,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi.
Too much disclosure could reveal the identities of victims who prefer to be anonymous or lawmakers who are falsely accused, exposing them to unfair consequences, government ethics experts and former committee aides said.
Attempts to crack down on “severance” settlements could also jeopardize the broad authority lawmakers have historically exercised over their office budgets, experts said.