Lawmakers have carte blanche to cut secret harassment settlements

 In Politics

The revelation that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) secretly settled a sexual harassment claim using his office funds obscured a disturbing fact: The House appears to have no clear rules on whether Conyers’ colleagues can do the same thing.

Conyers in 2015 made a severance payment of roughly $27,000 to a former aide who accused him of harassment using his taxpayer-funded office account. But even though the House ethics manual says that employees should be paid for having “regularly performed official duties” — in other words, showing up and doing work, a guideline that the severance payment to Conyers’ former aide didn’t meet — the settlement deal was still allowed to go forward.

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Now Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a vocal advocate for reform of Capitol Hill’s secretive system for handling workplace harassment, is calling out the lack of policing of the secret one-off settlements. She wants the House ethics committee to state definitively whether the chamber will allow more Conyers-style settlements.

The ethics panel “currently has no clear position on whether these payments are indeed impermissible,” Speier told the committee’s leaders in a Thursday letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.

Allowing lawmakers use of their office’s budgets “to avoid public disclosure of wrongdoing only serves to enable the evasion of accountability,” Speier wrote, adding that she knows of one member who used a maneuver similar to Conyers’ to settle a misconduct case earlier this year.

“The American people deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being used in this manner.”

The question of whether House members can settle harassment claims with their budgets — also known as members’ representational allowances, or MRAs — is at the heart of an ongoing ethics committee review of severance payments Rep. Mark Meadows (R-S.C.) made to a former chief of staff who was accused of sexual harassment by several female aides in the office.

One senior Democratic aide familiar with the issue said that before the Meadows probe, the ethics committee “was much clearer about the use of the MRA for this purpose.”

But the ethics panel’s “advice has been inconsistent and unhelpful” in the 15 months since, the aide added. “I don’t think that they expected this level of scrutiny around these particular settlements.”

Another Democratic aide sounded a similar note: “The lack of standardized guidance on this is problematic.”

Conyers himself is also the subject of another ethics panel review on the severance question stemming from his payments to a former chief of staff after she left his office following a guilty plea to a misdemeanor.

The House Administration Committee is holding a hearing Thursday on workplace misconduct settlements in Congress. Some of those are paid using a taxpayer-funded account maintained by the congressional Office of Compliance, while others come out of members’ budgets. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) settled a hostile work environment claim unrelated to sexual harassment in 2015 using operating funds from the House Natural Resources Committee, on which he is the top Democrat.

If the compliance office’s fund is used to pay a harassment claim, the administration panel’s GOP chairman and top Democrat have to sign off on it.

But the top Democrat on that committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady, said Thursday that no such approval requirement exists for harassment settlements paid from lawmakers’ office budgets. If that happened, Brady said in an interview, “we’d probably never know about it.”

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