Political News

Sexual harassment settlement money back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill

Posted December 6, 2017 6:27 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2017 9:10 a.m. EST

— Sexual harassment is back in the spotlight Thursday on Capitol Hill on the heels of a veteran congressman's dramatic resignation and as allegations of misconduct swirl around several other male lawmakers.

For the second time in less than a month, members of the House Administration Committee will convene a hearing to examine how sexual harassment complaints are handled in Congress and the rules that have been in place since the 1990s, which are widely believed to be antiquated. One issue that will be front and center: How settlements are reached between a congressional office and an accuser, and where the payout money comes from.

The hearing is taking on additional significance in light of Rep. John Conyers' announcement Tuesday to leave office. The Michigan Democrat, who was the longest serving member of the House, confronted multiple allegations of sexual harassment from former staffers -- and settled at least one case using taxpayer money from his own office. While Conyers denied any wrongdoing, he ultimately succumbed to widespread calls to resign and endorsed his son to take his seat.

At the center of Thursday's hearing is the Office of Compliance, established under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act to mediate and resolve workplace disputes on Capitol Hill. The office's executive director, Susan Tsui Grundmann, will be one of four witnesses to testify, along with Gloria Lett, a counsel at the Office of House Employment Counsel; Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and Daniel Crowley, a partner at the law firm K&L Gates.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of House GOP leadership, said this week that changes to the compliance office were "long overdue" and that recent reports of sexual harassment in Congress were "deeply troubling."

"Members of Congress -- we must walk the talk, lead by example," she said. "And we are taking action to renew the people's trust in the representatives that serve here in Congress."

Office of Compliance in the hot seat

There is broad agreement that the current system to handle sexual harassment claims in Congress Is not working and that reforms are needed. But there's not yet agreement on what to do about it.

Multiple congressional aides and lawmakers tell CNN that the top focus on Thursday will be the settlement process as it was set up by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 and is carried out by the Office of Compliance.

The recent sexual harassment complaints and settlements from years ago that have recently been brought to public light have highlighted a system that lacks transparency and clarity to even those directly involved.

Many members, including those in leadership, have been surprised to learn about the system in place in recent weeks, even acknowledging that they were unaware before exactly how the process works. One particularly thorny issue that has come up is the fact that members can tap into a fund set up with taxpayer dollars to settle their sexual harassment complaints.

Often when a settlement is made, due to the complex rules and the parties signing non-disclosure agreements, there are very few who end up knowing about it on Capitol Hill.

Growing calls for changes

With allegations of sexual harassment mount against members of Congress, lawmakers are calling for change.

Among the proposals to reform how complaints are handled on Capitol Hill is a bipartisan bill to eliminate a US Treasury fund used to pay out sexual harassment settlements. The idea is part of a bigger call to bring more transparency to the compliance office, including making public which members have been accused of misconduct and involved in settlements.

"We don't know those names," House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week. "We don't have this information. And that's why he's (Chairman Gregg Harper of Mississippi) reviewing the process. He is doing hearings. We are waiting for the committee to review they entire process to see how this settlements issue needs to be addressed and reformed going forward."

There have been numerous calls for a complete overhaul to the system, to bring more transparency and accountability.

The Office of Compliance, under the authorizing statute that governs their office, is required to make recommendations to Congress every two years of changes they'd like to see made to the system. But the Congressional Accountability Act has remained untouched since its inception in 1995.

Lawmakers under fire

Several other members of Congress have been accused of sexual harassment.

BuzzFeed reported Friday that a former staffer to Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada said the congressman harassed and inappropriately touched her during his 2016 congressional campaign. According to the woman, Kihuen repeatedly propositioned her despite her rejections, and touched her thigh on two separate occasions without her consent.

The report has prompted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to call on Kihuen to resign. Kihuen said he would not resign Tuesday. After the story initial broke, Kihuen apologized in a statement.

"I sincerely apologize for anything that I may have said or done that made her feel uncomfortable," Kihuen said. "I take this matter seriously as it is not indicative of who I am. I was raised in a strong family that taught me to treat women with the utmost dignity and respect."

Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas reportedly settled a sexual harassment complaint brought by an aide in 2014. According to the OOC, there has only been one sexual harassment settlement involving a House member that was paid out from the OOC's fund since 2013, totaling $84,000.

Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota is also under fire. Multiple women have accused the second-term senator of groping, prompting the senator to apologize and say any inappropriate behavior was unintentional. On Wednesday, a slew of senators called on Franken to resign, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

This story has been updated.