HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that any sexual harassment complaints involving senators and House members in which taxpayer money was secretly paid out should be disclosed as long as the “victim wants them to be made public.”
Blumenthal addressed the issue Monday at a press conference at the Legislative Office Building.
“If taxpayer funds are used, then yes, I believe these settlements should be made public,” Blumenthal said. He added that he also believes that any politician who uses taxpayer funds to pay a settlement “should be required to reimburse those funds.”
Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, recently unveiled companion bills in the House and Senate to reform the sexual harassment complaint process on the Hill and boost transparency around the sensitive issue.
It will also require members and staff to go through mandatory sexual harassment training every year, and seek to give victims and whistleblowers more support. In recent weeks a bevy of news stories have been broken about sexual harassment claims involving politicians.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said Monday: “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace, and those who work for members of Congress are no different. The deck is too often stacked against the victims of office harassment.
“I’m supporting Senator Gillibrand’s bill to fix this and make sure we stop protecting bad actors in Congress who have cases of sexual harassment brought against them,” Murphy said. “No one who has experienced sexual harassment by their boss should have the government ban them from speaking out if they choose to.”
Most recently it was was reported that taxpayer money was used to pay a $84,000 settlement for a claim filed against House Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who was sued by his former communications director, Lauren Greene, for sexual harassment in 2014.
When the case was resolved, Farenthold denied any wrongdoing and agreed, along with Greene, to settle the case to save taxpayer money, according to a statement that the two made at the time of the settlement.
Over the past five years about $360,000 in settlements have been paid out in claims made against six member’s offices in the House of Representatives.
The information was released by the Committee on House Administration, which requested details on the types of settlements that have been paid out, including information on the types of claims that have been made, as a part of its ongoing review of how Congress handles complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
It was already known that some $17 million in settlements have been paid by the Congressional office that handles workplace complaints.
The money for those settlements comes from “an account of the Office in the Treasury on the United States for the payment of awards and settlements,” under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act.
In a statement, Gregg Harper, who serves as chairman of the Committee on House Administration, called the data released by the Office of Compliance last Friday “preliminary” because it only covers settlements paid between Fiscal Year 2013 and the present. In his request, the chairman asked for a breakdown of the total $17 million in settlements that have been paid over the past two decades.
These details come just a day after ABC News reported that the Office of Compliance paid nearly $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim made against former Democratic Rep. Eric Massa.
Massa resigned amid an ethics investigation in 2010. Michigan House Rep. John Conyers also admitted to paying a settlement after a former staffer alleged she was fired because she turned down his sexual advances. In that case, which was first reported by BuzzFeed, the money came from Conyers’ office budget and not the Office of Compliance fund.
The 88-year-old Conyers announced Tuesday that he was stepping down from his seat — immediately.
The Committee on House Administration’s review comes amid a growing call for transparency in Congress regarding how it handles claims of workplace harassment. The current process through which an employee reports workplace harassment and discrimination has been described as having been designed to protect harassers rather than the abused, in part because it is shrouded in secrecy.
Congress has taken some steps to reform its approach to sexual harassment. Last week, the House passed a resolution mandating anti-discrimination and anti-sexual harassment training for all members and staff.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has also introduced legislation to revamp the current reporting process known as the Me Too Congress Act. Among other things, if a settlement is reached that bill would require the name of the employing office and the amount of the award or settlement be published on the OOC’s public website.