Earlier this month, we learned about the secretive and degrading way in which sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill. Staffers who claim to have been harassed by lawmakers have to go through a tedious process that involves mandatory counseling and mediation, interspersed with mandatory waiting periods. While staffers have the option of filing suit, they can only sue the lawmaker’s office, not the lawmaker. They also aren’t allowed to seek civil penalties or punitive damages, which means a lawsuit usually isn’t worth the financial or emotional toll.
This usually forces staffers to opt for an administrative hearing in which the allegations are kept secret unless the complaint is successful–meaning that neither other lawmakers nor the public may know that there’s a predator on Capitol Hill. In both cases, settlements are paid from taxpayer funds, not out of the lawmaker’s pocket.
This system first came to light with reports that Congressman John Conyers paid $27,000 to settle a claim that he fired a former staffer after she rejected his sexual advances. In response to the ensuing outcry, the Congressional Office of Compliance, the closest thing to an HR department in the Capitol, revealed on Friday that the Treasury Department had only paid out one sexual harassment claim against a congressman in the last five years.
Well, now we know who that congressman is–Blake Farenthold, a Republican representing Texas’ 27th congressional district. In 2014, his then-communications director, Lauren Greene, claimed that Farenthold and one of his top aides, Bob Haueter, had made a number of inappropriate comments to her. According to Greene, when she complained, Farenthold fired her.
Watch more details from The Young Turks here.
After going through the OCC’s mandatory counseling and mediation process, Greene sued Farenthold’s office in federal court. However, out of concern that taxpayers would be on the hook for the drawn-out legal process, both parties agreed to take the matter to mediation.
In November 2015, the matter was settled on confidential terms, in which both parties were barred from discussing the case. However, Politico learned, and The Washington Post confirmed, that as part of the settlement, the Treasury Department paid Greene $84,000.
Alexis Ronickher, a Washington-based lawyer who frequently represents congressional employees in workplace complaints, said that $84,000 was a pittance considering “the types of conducts that are being alleged.” She also noted that Greene will find it “very hard to build a life” now that her name has been linked to the complaint.
Now here’s where this gets hideous. Farenthold is one of the richest members of Congress, with a net worth of $2.4 million. He had more than enough money to pay this settlement out of his own pocket. Instead, he stuck taxpayers with the bill.
The reaction from the Republicans has been somewhat mixed. Speaker Paul Ryan said through a spokeswoman that he would not call for Farenthold to step down. However, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, who recently cosponsored a resolution requiring all House members and staffers to undergo sexual harassment training, called for Farenthold to resign and reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the settlement. Through a spokesman, Comstock also called for Farenthold and Greene to waive the confidentiality agreement so they can testify about what happened.
Contrast this with how two Democrats accused of sexual harassment are under well-deserved pressure to resign. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several other prominent Democrats called for Conyers to resign after the staffer who filed the complaint against him, Marion Brown, came forward to describe how he harassed her. Among other things, Brown said Conyers tried to get her to touch his genitals, touched her inappropriately, and propositioned her.
Hours after the news about Farenthold broke, Buzzfeed reported that Congressman Ruben Kihuen–best known for tweeting a picture of the Democratic baseball team praying for Majority Whip Steve Scalise after he was shot during practice for the congressional baseball game–made numerous passes at her during the 2016 campaign. Within hours, both Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Lujan called for Kihuen to step down immediately.
The most outrageous part of the Conyers affair is that he paid the settlement out of his taxpayer-funded office budget. It’s no different for Farenthold. If a lawmaker sticks taxpayers with the bill for settling a harassment claim–especially when he has the means to pay it himself–it shows utter contempt for both the victim and the people he represents. They both need to go, and they need to go now while they can at least appear to be doing so decently.
(featured image courtesy U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, available under a Creative Commons-BY license)