Congressional Sexual Harassment Settlements in Spotlight as Pressure to Lift Veil of Secrecy Grows

The American flag flies at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol at sunset following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Washington. President Barack Obama ordered flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff through Friday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The number of lawmakers accused of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct continues to grow, but those who have used taxpayer funds to settle claims in the past remain behind a veil of secrecy.

Now, calls for members who have settled sexual harassment or similar claims to be named is also growing, with lawmakers and government transparency advocates saying Americans have a right to know who has used taxpayer dollars for what is — for all intents and purposes — a slush fund for hush payments.

Lawmakers are calling for a change on how the Office of Compliance (OOC) conducts business, including making the names of those in Congress who settle claims be made public.

Last week Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) announced legislation he’s crafting to stop taxpayer dollars paying for settling sexual harassment claims and to unseal those settlement records.

“I’m working on legislation to unseal settlement records, bar use of tax dollars to pay claims against members & staff, prohibit members from using office budgets to camouflage payments (a Conyers rule) & require reimbursement of the taxpayer,” DeSantis tweeted on Wednesday.

It also would require that any member of Congress that settled a complaint using taxpayer funds be named and require them to reimburse the American people.

“Settlements paid with tax dollars should not be kept secret,” DeSantis said in a statement. “Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent.”

“Furthermore, members of Congress cannot be allowed to use the American people’s money as a personal slush fund to cover wrongdoing.”

Tom Fitton, president of the government transparency advocate,  Judicial Watch, said Congress has also made it difficult to get information from OOC because the office does not have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allow citizens and journalists to request information about the federal government and make it public.

“The fact is, we don’t know what goes on on Capitol Hill because members of Congress want it that way and the only way that’s going to change in when the American people react,” Fitton said in a video JW posted on YouTube.

Fitton said it is ironic that members of Congress press for transparency from the executive branch but have a double standard when it comes to the same standard for the legislative branch.

“You’re complaining about transparency from the executive branch but there’s no transparency from you,” Fitton said.

As Breitbart News reported last week Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) started an avalanche of fake news after she claimed that the OOC — the office responsible for handling sexual harassment and other claims of misconduct — had paid $15 million over the past 10 to 15 years to settle sexual harassment cases.

In the latest report issued by OOC — distributed as the firestorm of sexual harassment claims swirled — actually shows that $17 million has been paid out for all claims, including an unknown number for sexual harassment, settled between fiscal year 1997 to fiscal year 2017.

Breitbart News reported that officials were unable to provide any information about specific settlements, citing privacy.

Teresa James, director of the Administrative Dispute Resolution Program at OOC, told Breitbart News said there is no way to glean from the numbers exactly how many of the cases over the past two decades were for sexual harassment.

“There’s actually nothing we can do,” James said.

Meanwhile, Politico reported that leaders of both parties in Congress also seem to be in the dark:

Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) office and the House Administration Committee have not ruled out potential changes to the settlement reporting process as part of an ongoing review of the chamber’s harassment policy. But there’s strong, albeit quiet, resistance on Capitol Hill to disclosing the names of members who’ve reached settlements in the past.

Aides to Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have noted that the leaders don’t currently have the names of the members who’ve settled such complaints, even if they wanted to release them.

But congressional leaders could likely get them if they asked. That’s because the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee, who have to approve any settlement payments issued by the Office of Compliance, would be expected to comply with any shift in policy agreed to by Ryan and Pelosi.

This new scrutiny on how the federal government deals with sexual and other misconduct comes after lawmakers have been accused of wrongdoing, including Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

The Conyers controversy opens up yet another way that lawmakers can avoid accountability.

Politico reported that Conyers settled his sexual harassment claim by using his office funds, bypassing the OCC.

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