One victim told Rep. Speier the process is “almost worse than the harassment.”
Minnesota Democrat Senator Al Franken. Michigan Democrat Representative John Conyers. Who is next? It could be anyone! A Washington Post report from a few weeks ago showed that the “Office of Compliance has paid more than $17 million for 264 settlements and awards to federal employees for violations of various employment rules” since 1997. This includes sexual harassment.
Congress returns to work after the Thanksgiving holiday to immense pressure not only to reveal the causes and people involved in these settlements, but to make the process more transparent.
The grueling process really came to light when BuzzFeed published its report on Conyers. He settled a wrongful dismissal claim in 2015 when a female employee claimed he fired her because she didn’t give into his sexual advances. I blogged last week (emphasis mine):
Without a human resources department, an employee must report sexual harassment to the Office of Compliance within 180 days. This will lead “to a lengthy process involves counseling, mediation, and requires the signing of a confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward.”
Once that ends, the employee may opt to take the case to federal district court or it can go to “an administrative hearing, after which a negotiation and settlement may follow.”
Matthew Peterson, the law clerk that represented the woman and “listed as a signatory,” also spoke to BuzzFeed:
The process was “disgusting,” said Matthew Peterson, who worked as a law clerk representing the complainant, and who listed as a signatory to some of the documents.
“It is a designed cover-up,” said Peterson, who declined to discuss details of the case but agreed to characterize it in general terms. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
No one else spoke to BuzzFeed. The Office of Compliance said they cannot make comments on such matters.
A bipartisan group within the House has already started to prepare legislation to change this and put all employees through anti-harassment training. From The New York Times:
In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, and Representative Barbara Comstock, Republican of Virginia, is pushing for legislation that would require claims to be handled in public. In the Senate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has put forth similar legislation.
“It was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser,” Ms. Speier said on the ABC program “This Week,” adding, “We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are.”
Speir told This Week that she spoke to “one victim who called the process ‘almost worse than the harassment.'”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) agreed that all these settlements “should be more transparent,” especially since the government uses taxpayer money to settle.
It seems that the legislation will only cover claims starting this year. We do not know if they will unmask those involved in the WaPo report.
However, Speier didn’t call for Conyers to step down. From ABC News:
“I think that the allegations [against Conyers] are very serious and that’s why the ethics committee needs to move very swiftly, not wait 8 years, but very swiftly, staff up if necessary, to determine whether or not those allegations are accurate,” Speier said. “And if they’re accurate, I do believe Congressman Conyers should step down.”
“I think we are innocent until we are proven guilty,” she said.
Only Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) has called for Conyers to step down:
“I’ve reviewed the allegations against him, and they’re as credible as they are repulsive,” Rice said in a statement. “The women who reported this behavior suffered serious professional repercussions for doing so, which is exactly why so many victims of sexual harassment and assault decide not to step forward.”
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