Senate steps up scrutiny of congressional sexual harassment complaints

Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 3:10 PM

Michelle Ye Hee Lee

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

Senate lawmakers are stepping up their scrutiny of congressional sexual harassment complaints and taxpayer-funded settlements as pressure mounts on Congress to disclose information about the alleged misconduct of lawmakers.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Thursday joined two Senate committees in seeking records of complaints and settlements from the Office of Compliance, which carries out the required counseling and mediation process for legislative employees filing workplace claims. Kaine said he would publicly release any data he receives.

His request came as Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced he is resigning after multiple allegations that he sexually harassed women. Franken is one of several members of Congress who have been accused of inappropriate behavior.

In the past week, the House started releasing limited data on claims and settlements, without identifying any accusers or the lawmakers said to be involved. Even less is known about the number of workplace complaints involving Senate offices and how much public money was used to resolve them.

In a Dec. 6 letter to Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, Kaine requested records from 2007 to 2017 showing the number of sexual harassment claims filed against members and their aides, the number of claims that were resolved, and the total amount paid to resolve the claims.

“In the interest of transparency, I plan to publicly disclose this information because I believe it will provide some insight into the scope of the problem and help determine solutions for preventing and addressing future incidents,” Kaine wrote in the letter.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which has oversight authority over the Office of Compliance on the Senate side, requested a breakdown of settlements from the office. The Senate Ethics Committee then requested similar data regarding claims involving current senators and aides.

It’s unclear whether the Office of Compliance will provide any information in response to Kaine’s request. On Thursday, the office sent a letter to Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., the top two members of the Senate Ethics Committee, saying it “is not in possession of any record that fits within the narrow statutory exception to confidentiality contained” in the law.

In his letter to the Office of Compliance, Kaine said the information he is seeking “should not breach any confidentiality agreement between the parties or the identities of the survivors and the accused.”

More than $17 million in settlements and awards have been paid through a Treasury Department account set up to handle disbursements for harassment and other workplace complaints on Capitol Hill.

The Office of Compliance last week released a breakdown of the House settlements and claims since 2013 to the Committee on House Administration at the request of the committee, which oversees daily operations in the House.

In total, the Treasury account paid $359,450 for claims against House members’ offices since 2013, the data shows. Only one settlement involved a sexual harassment claim: a complaint filed against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, which was settled in 2015 for $84,000.

In the House, lawmakers are debating changes to the Congressional Accountability Act, which established the current rules that govern how most sexual harassment settlements are reached through formal channels.

During a House Administration Committee hearing on Thursday, the Office of Compliance asked the panel for legislative changes to allow the office to investigate claims of sexual harassment, better represent employees who bring the charges and release more information about settlements paid with public funds.

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Video: Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on Dec. 7 said he will resign from the Senate “in the coming weeks” amid allegations of sexual harassment. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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