Last weekend, as the hot lights turned on the secretive and degrading manner in which sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill, we learned that John Conyers wasn’t the only congressman to recently used taxpayer money to settle a harassment claim from a former staffer.
In 2014, Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, was hauled into federal court by his former communications director, Laura Greene, who claimed he’d fired her after she complained about harassing behavior from the congressman and another aide. Ultimately, a settlement was reached in which Greene was paid $84,000 from a secret fund earmarked for settling harassment claims.
The criticism came fast and hard, especially considering that Farenthold could have easily afforded to pay that settlement out of his own pocket; he’s worth over $2.4 million. By Monday, Farenthold realized he’d stepped in it. He told KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi that he plans to pay the money back. Watch here.
Farenthold maintains that he “didn’t do anything wrong,” but promised to “do my best” to give Speaker Paul Ryan or someone in authority a check that will reimburse taxpayers in full.
That probably comes as cold comfort to Greene. She has been unable to find steady work in the three-plus years since leaving Farenthold’s office, and has found herself effectively locked out of her field.
Greene joined Farenthold’s office in 2013 as new media director. She’d risen fast and far after graduating from the College of Charleston in 2009; she’d spent five years as an intern and staffer for Congressman John Sullivan of Oklahoma before moving to Farenthold’s office. She was promoted to communications director a year later. Soon afterward, things started getting dicey.
According to Greene’s complaint, Farenthold started directing lewd comments toward her; among other things, he reportedly told her that he had “wet dreams” about her. Another top Farenthold staffer, Bob Haueter, was also churlish toward her. She claimed that when she complained about this behavior, Farenthold fired her.
Greene asked two friends–one who still worked in Congress, another who had moved to the private sector–about what to do. Both of them told her that she would be “blackballed” if she spoke up. Despite her fears, Greene decided to file a complaint. After going through the tedious counseling and mediation process, she decided to sue Farenthold. However, due to concerns about how much the drawn-out legal dispute would cost taxpayers, both parties took the matter back to mediation, at which Farenthold’s office agreed to the settlement.
Although she hoped to stay in Washington, it soon became apparent that her life in politics was over. She moved back to Charleston, where she started taking freelance jobs to stay on her feet. She also started babysitting for friends and neighbors to make extra money. Her parents and family have also supported her financially.
All the while, she blasted out applications and resumes, to no avail. She was close to catching on with one firm, but was told that they opted not to hire her due to the news coverage about her suit against Farenthold. Earlier this year, she moved to Charlotte, where she hopes to get a fresh start.
Meanwhile, Farenthold has faced very little pressure to stand down. To date, only one Republican has called for Farenthold to resign–namely, Barbara Comstock of Virginia. No one in the House leadership has spoken up.
Contrast this with how the Democrats have dealt with harassment in their own ranks. On Tuesday, Conyers bowed to the inevitable and resigned in the face of several of his former staffers accusing him of sexually harassing them. Another Democratic congressman, Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, is under growing pressure to stand down after a former campaign aide made numerous passes at her for dates and sex.
There is something fundamentally wrong when a congressman thinks he can stick taxpayers with the bill for a sexual harassment settlement, especially when he has the means to pay it out of his own pocket. There is something fundamentally wrong when a lawmaker who faced credible accusations of sexual harassment can stay in office while his accuser has to scratch and claw to make a living.
Both together? It’s hard to see how this is even a debate. If Farenthold has anything in him, he shouldn’t just deliver a check for the full amount of that settlement to Ryan. He should also deliver his resignation.
(featured image courtesy U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, part of public domain)