Congress has been paying sexual harassment victims to stay silent with your tax dollars.
As if the recent wave of revelations of sexual harassment by congressmen wasn't appalling enough, we're now finding out that Congress has used taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment cases out of the public eye.
It's not just the wasteful government spending that's so offensive, but that it was used to cover up bad behavior.
Just how much "hush money" Congress has spent is unclear, as the pot from which most of it comes from is part of the U.S. Office of Compliance (OOC). The OOC was created in 1995 by the Congressional Accountability Act to deal with workplace issues in all the offices of the legislative branch, ranging from allegations of discrimination to unsafe conditions in the workplace.
But with several Congressman now accused of sexual harassment - including Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), as well as Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, of Alabama - numerous instances in which accusers received taxpayer-funded settlements have emerged.
So far, three settlements have come to light...
Your Tax Dollars Paid for These Sexual Harassment Settlements
The 88-year-old Conyers, who announced his retirement today (Tuesday) as a result of multiple sexual harassment allegations, settled a wrongful dismissal case in 2015 for $27,000. The money for that came from Conyers' congressional office budget and was labeled as severance pay to mask its true purpose.
A 2014 accusation from a female staffer against Farenthold resulted in an $84,000 settlement paid out of OOC funds, according to Politico. Yesterday, Farenthold promised to repay the taxpayer money.
And in 2010, the OOC paid a $100,000 settlement to two male staffers who worked for Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY), ABC News reported. Massa resigned that same year ahead of a pending ethics investigation into the sexual harassment claims.
While the actual sums are small in comparison to the $4.1 trillion federal budget, it's outrageous that any taxpayer money was spent on these settlements.
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"It is unconscionable that Congressmen and Senators have taxpayers foot the bill for their disgusting actions," said Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) as he introduced a bill to Congress, on Nov. 28, which would forbid the use of taxpayer funds to pay sexual harassment settlements.
Because of the secretive way in which these cases have been handled, we can only guess at how many more times since 1995 your tax dollars have paid sexual harassment settlements to protect a Congressman's reputation...
We've Only Scratched the Surface of This Issue
According to The Washington Post, the OOC has paid $17.2 million in taxpayer money for 264 settlements and awards since 1997. Because of confidentiality rules, we don't know how many of these were related to sexual harassment complaints.
But the OOC publishes an annual report that breaks down the different types of complaints by category.
The data shows that "harassment/hostile work environment" is consistently the category with the most complaints.
As watchdogs dig for answers, don't be surprised if the tally of your tax dollars spent on sexual harassment settlements rises and more congressmen get added to the list above.
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"This is exactly why there should be transparency," Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) told ABC News. Rice is a co-sponsor of a bill that would end the secrecy surrounding the settlements. "There is no reason why these settlements, these accusations should be done in secret once they're adjudicated."
Fixing this issue has strong bipartisan support now.
Here are the changes you can expect...
What Congress Will Do Now
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Republicans and Democrats in both chambers have proposed legislation to end the use of taxpayer dollars to pay sexual harassment settlements and introduce transparency to the process so that perpetrators will have to deal with their transgressions publicly.
A bill by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) would require lawmakers involved in harassment settlements to reimburse taxpayers. Her legislation also would require the OOC to publish both the names of the offices involved as well as the amounts of the settlements. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has introduced a similar bill, which has dozens of co-sponsors.
Both making the accused pay for settlements out of their own pockets and threatening their careers by making it all public should go far in curbing sexual harassment by congressmen.
Legislators have not yet proposed forcing those guilty of sexual harassment to resign, although that might happen anyway. So far, Franken has resisted calls for his resignation, while Conyers succumbed to similar pressure by retiring.
Legislators are also scrutinizing what the victims must do to lodge a complaint.
The OOC rules state that anyone bringing a claim over a workplace issue must do so within a 180-day window. After filing a complaint, the employee goes through 30 days of mandatory counseling.
That's followed by a 30-day mediation period in an attempt to resolve the issue. If the mediation is unsuccessful, the victim must wait yet another 30 days before she can file a lawsuit or seek an administrative hearing.
While this process may be reasonable for some of the workplace issues that the OOC deals with, it puts an unfair burden on victims of sexual harassment.
"It's very clear [that] when the original bill that put this process in place was passed in 1995, it was done to protect the institution, not the most vulnerable," a spokesperson for Speier told Vox.
To fix this aspect of the problem, any legislation that emerges also will need to change the OOC rules for sexual harassment cases.
"The process that's in place now, and I'm learning more about it, is adverse to someone coming forward," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told The Hill. "It's antiquated, it's not transparent. I think we all recognize it's a bad system."
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- ABC News: Congress Secretly Paid Nearly $100,000 to Settle Harassment Claims Against Disgraced Congressman
- The Hill: Senate Women: Rules on Harassment Must Change
- Vox: There's a Little-Known Fund That Goes to Victims of Sexual Harassment on the Hill. You Pay for It.
About the Author
David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.
Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.