No doubt there are many on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and in state capitals across the nation that are somehow hoping that the distraction of Christmas and New Year’s Day will somehow change the channel on the intense scrutiny of sexual harassment (or worse) committed by politicians of both political parties.
That’s not going to happen. In fact, I predict that the high profile that this issue has taken over the past few months is just a harbinger of things to come as the holidays come to a close.
We have seen members of the U.S. Senate and House resign, or announce retirements. We have seen state legislators do the same. Here in California we have seen resignations from Assemblymembers Matt Debabneh (D-Los Angeles) and Raul Bocanegra (D-Arleta) already. The resignation of the former has placed a lot of negative scrutiny on U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), for whom Debabneh served as district director. A third Assemblymember, Sebastian Ridley Thomas (D-Los Angeles), just this week announced his sudden resignation, citing health reasons — after his name had been whispered as someone else who might end up in the spotlight on this issue. California State Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) is considered by many to be politically a dead man walking as multiple credible accusers have made serious allegations about him – and he has been suspended from all of his committee assignments as a formal investigation takes place. Another Senator, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Reseda), is also the subject of an investigation as well.
The reason the issue is a powder keg that has not really blown up yet is the secret-taxpayer funded settlements. In the U.S. Senate and iHouse, it has been revealed that millions of dollars have been spent settling sexual harassment issues coming straight out of the offices of federal legislators. In some cases, these secret settlements have taken place using money from individual office budgets; in other cases, payments have been made from funds controlled by the institutions (so presumably, ultimately, leadership).
Similarly, in the California legislature we have learned that significant sums of taxpayer money have been spent on sexual harassment claims made against elected.
No one that I have spoken to regarding secret settlements – and I have spoken with many – thinks that this is okay. In fact, most get downright angry when they hear about it. For two reasons, mainly.
The first: if money is being paid out to someone who filed a claim there is a presumption that the claim was meritorious, and that the public has a right to know when one of their elected officials has been found to be conducting themselves inappropriately, or worse.
The second: these are public dollars and the public has the right to know where their dollars are being spent.
Adding to the considerable cost of these secret settlements themselves is now the fallout from resignations – i.e. special elections, and their significant cost to taxpayers.
It seems that there are two main groups of politicians who are interested in slow-walking or ideally never revealing the truth behind secret settlements.
Of course there are the sleazy politicians who know that if and when the news breaks that they had sexual harassment allegations so credible against them that victims had to be paid off – well, as we have seen, these have been extinction moments for most.
But then there are the enablers: those that have not actually committed and untoward or sleazy actions themselves, but they are covering up for those who have done so. That means those who are in a position to open the books – to provide transparency. Presumably this is leadership in Washington and in Sacramento – both elected leaders, as well as those legislators heading up key administrative committees with oversight over such matters.
Frankly, every federal and state legislator should be putting out a statement calling for transparency and for making the secret settlements public – as well as stating on the record that they have not had any issues themselves. That would create significant peer pressure.
There are efforts both in the national and state capitols to shine the light on settlements. In D.C. a legislative effort is being spearheaded by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). In Sacramento, the Senate Republican Leader, Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), has called for more transparency.
Legislators that are not affirmatively trying to open up the books, and shine the light on secret settlements, are in fact part of the problem.
The war drums on this issue are only getting louder and louder – and the new year will bring a new national drive for transparency and accountability.
This entire episode has emerged as a painful stain on our political system (and as an ugly cultural black eye, as stories continue to emerge across the country outside of politics).
But this is not without a considerable upside. Change needs to happen. It’s not all right for people with power to engage in sexual misconduct – period. It’s not appropriate, nor humorous, in any context.
Jon Fleischman is the Politics Editor for Breitbart California. His columns appear on this page. You can follow him on Twitter here.