Pressure is mounting on congressional leaders to release the names of lawmakers who have secretly settled sexual harassment claims at taxpayer expense — a move that some members of Congress are loath to make.
President Donald Trump told reporters this week that he believes Congress should disclose the settlements. A handful of House members from both parties are calling on Republican leadership to do the same.
And Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) proposed legislation Wednesday that would mandate public disclosure of sexual harassment settlements — and ban Congress from footing the bill for such deals in the future. Within a few hours of introducing his bill, DeSantis had been contacted by several Republican and Democratic lawmakers asking to sign on.
“It’s taxpayer dollars at issue; taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent,” DeSantis said in an interview, adding that he doesn’t understand “why the taxpayer should ever be on the hook for private misconduct of a member. … That should not be something the taxpayers are funding.”
The effort by DeSantis and other lawmakers has sparked an uncomfortable debate inside an institution known for protecting its own. As a national controversy over sexual misconduct by powerful men swirls, some lawmakers worry that the push for disclosure could unfairly unmask members of Congress who insist they’ve been wrongly accused.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) 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.
Some lawmakers and aides worry that several sitting members of Congress are among those who’ve paid their accusers in recent years. Some of them say that settling a claim doesn’t necessarily mean the member was guilty. There are times when it is preferable to settle than to engage in a prolonged legal battle, these people surmise.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) made that point on CNN on Tuesday night, arguing that settlements “should be [made] public going forward” — but not retroactively.
“You may very well have people who … were innocent but who thought [they] better get a settlement than go through protracted litigation,” Nadler said.
But others argue that the taxpayer money involved trumps the case for keeping settlements private.
“They’ve used our tax dollars to settle cases where they’re being accused, at least, of violating laws they’re enacting and expect others to live under,” said Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. Martin’s group is one of several calling for disclosure of lawmaker names.
It’s not just fiscal hawks calling for more transparency. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a longtime sponsor of anti-sexual harassment legislation, has also urged leaders to release the names of lawmakers who’ve settled sexual harassment claims. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) agreed, telling MSNBC on Tuesday that “any settlements should be made public.”
Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) told POLITICO on Wednesday that he’s drafting a bill that would bar Congress from using taxpayer money for harassment settlements.
“There is no way that the taxpayer should be subsidizing predatory behavior. Period,” said the freshman lawmaker, who sits on a House subcommittee that oversees lawmakers’ office budgets.
The back-and-forth comes two days after BuzzFeed reported that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the longest-serving House member, had used his office funds to settle a sexual harassment claim against him. In recent weeks, several publications including POLITICO have reported that current House rules enable the Office of Compliance, which handles employment disputes, to tap Treasury resources to pay settlements for disputes brought to them.
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.
Since 1997, the compliance office has paid out $17 million in workplace dispute settlements, a total that covers discrimination, workplace safety, and pay claims, as well as harassment cases.
There’s another potential wrinkle to releasing names and details of all harassment settlements: The compliance office does not necessarily keep records of harassment settlements that are paid out of members’ office budgets, sources familiar with the process told POLITICO. That approach, which was used by Conyers, ostensibly allows members to avoid getting House Administration Committee approval.
“Based on my experience, that ends up being the approach that is most feasible,” said a source familiar with the compliance office’s confidential process, and who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. But, the source added, members who use internal budgets to settle claims risk looking like they are “getting around” a requirement to pay claims from the compliance office’s fund.
DeSantis said that using office budgets to pay for settlements may be one loophole that allows lawmakers to hide harassment claims even now. He wasn’t sure if it is possible to force members to “self-disclose” whether they used their member office budgets to settle with accusers — though he encouraged reporters to try to identify any lawmakers who have done so.
DeSantis’ bill would require all compliance office settlements to be made public as well as the details of the allegations. Victims’ names would be kept secret, but DeSantis believes they should have a right to come forward to tell their stories.
His legislation, like the bill Taylor is working on, would also prohibit taxpayer money from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against lawmakers in the future. It would force any members involved in such payouts in the past to reimburse the Treasury for the payment, a requirement that’s also included in broader legislation authored by Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Though Taylor’s legislation wouldn’t require accused lawmakers involved in settlements to be named, the Republican said he would back DeSantis’ measure, which does have that provision.
If Republican leaders don’t lean on the House Administration Committee to disclose settlements, they may have to deal with external pressure from outside conservative groups that are ramping up the pressure on Congress to disclose more information.
Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group that has used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover details of Hillary Clinton’s emails, wants Congress to allow FOIA to apply to internal information such as the now-secret workplace misconduct settlements.
Currently FOIA does not apply to Congress, which for years has been shielded from document requests because lawmakers argue it would disrupt legislative deliberations.
“The fact is, we don’t know what’s going on on Capitol Hill because members of Congress want it that way,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said of the harassment settlements in a Tuesday video that the group posted on Twitter. “And the only way that’s going to change is if the American people react.”
Powered by WPeMatico