Congressmen used the chaos of an impending government shutdown to “covertly” neuter efforts to reform Congress’ sexual harassment settlement slush fund, according to ethics watchdogs.
Members of both parties loudly expressed outrage at revelations of a system that used Department of the Treasury funds to pay off alleged victims of mistreatment by congressmen in exchange for binding them with secrecy. They acted shocked when it emerged in the media, even though the leaders of the House Administration Committee had voted on each settlement when it occurred.
Now the leaders of that same committee — Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Democrat Robert Brady of Pennsylvania — propose renaming the detested Office of Compliance instead of abolishing it. They slipped a passage into the second-to-last page of reform legislation that blocks involvement of the Office of Congressional Ethics, an existing independent forum that makes its findings public when it concludes there is cause for concern.
“The Office of Congressional Ethics may not initiate or continue any investigation of a claim alleging a violation of law made applicable to employing offices … if a covered employee files a claim with respect to the alleged violation under title IV of such Act,” the new bill says.
Brady, the ranking member of the committee, is himself under investigation by the FBI for allegedly hiding a $90,000 payment. Authorities alleged in November that Brady led a criminal conspiracy to hide the payment, which they said was aimed at convincing his primary opponent to drop out of the race against him. Harper has announced that he will not run for re-election.
“While the country is distracted by the potential government shutdown, House leadership is using this opportunity to purposefully defang the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and undermine its role in upholding high ethical standards in the House of Representatives. They inserted language that would take the unprecedented step of restricting OCE’s jurisdiction,” Meredith McGehee, a longtime congressional ethics expert who leads the nonpartisan ethics group Issue One, said in a statement Friday. She continued:
This offending language should be removed from the legislation immediately because there is no demonstrated need for it to be there.
The proposed streamlined process would require the new Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to refer cases to the House Ethics Committee without the transparency applicable to investigations conducted by OCE. This is alarming given the Committee’s poor track record when it comes to committing to a timely, publicly accountable process.
The Harper-Brady bill legislates away OCE’s jurisdiction without any public hearings or apparently without any discussion with OCE. This covert move is reminiscent of House leadership’s behind-closed-doors effort to sabotage OCE at the beginning of the 115th Congress.
Daniel Schuman, an ethics expert with the liberal group Demand Progress, said congressmen hate OCE because it works: “OCE was created in 2008 as an independent check on the Ethics Committee, which … continues to fail to address ethics matters. The Ethics Committee hates OCE and wants to undermine it.”
When the OCE refers a matter to the ethics committee, it “eventually becomes public, forcing the Ethics Committee to do more work than they would otherwise do,” he said on Twitter. “If anything, OCE should be strengthened. It should be granted subpoena power.”
The Committee on House Administration has a reputation for working to suppress information damaging to the institution’s reputation — shielding members of both parties from scrutiny and exerting only sluggish oversight.
For example, under significant pressure, the committee published statistics about sexual harassment settlements from the Office of Compliance, saying there had been 21 settlements involving members’ offices since 2008, totaling $700,000. The casual reader would not know — though the committee surely would — that number covered only a fraction of claims. Other claims went through a different body — the Office of House Employment Counsel.
Even the statistics from the Office of Compliance were incomplete, omitting a $220,000 payment it approved related to Rep. Alcee Hastings, even though it involved a “member-led office.”
The Administration Committee in 2016 astonishingly misled the public and members of Congress about a major cyber breach, referring to an “internal investigation” as a “theft investigation,” when in fact the most recent report from the House Office of Inspector General did not even mention theft, but rather had the headline “Continuing Unauthorized Access.” In actuality, the probe documented how Pakistani-born aides made unauthorized access to servers, logged in as members and took data from the network.
Democratic, Rep. Joaquin Castro, who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and employed one of the suspects, said he was never told there was any cybersecurity issue whatsoever. As a result, members did not have the information they would need to press charges, with the committee seemingly preferring to let the breach take place rather than deal with the work and the turmoil of a public grappling.
The Harper-Brady settlement reform bill says that moving forward, members must repay settlements and directs the Office of Compliance to publish a list every six months disclosing congressional office, the amount of the settlement, and the nature of the claim. But it does not apply to past settlements.
The bill was also backed by Rep. Jackie Speier, who herself employed a staffer who was accused of abuse by four different women within two years. Speier’s spokesperson did not respond to repeated inquiries about that staffer, Imran Awan — the same one in the cybersecurity probe — even though she also employed his wife.
A stronger bill was introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, which would have unsealed past settlements, required members to pay them back, and removed gag orders on victims, but it appears to be going nowhere.