Deeply embarrassing for Republicans, and a reminder that harassment is a bipartisan problem in case yesterday’s news about the Eric Massa settlement in 2010 had you believing otherwise.
Even so, I think Politico buried the lede. The GOP Rep in question is Blake Farenthold, who, until now, was probably most famous for this pic taken at a party in 2009, a year before he ran for Congress:
This guy? pic.twitter.com/YodkEfF2cE
— Josh Schwerin (@JoshSchwerin) December 1, 2017
That’s him in the ducky pajamas. Before entering public service he ran a computer consulting company which owned, among many others, the domain name blow-me.org, a bit of trivia which you’ll probably see recycled on social media today. What did he do that required a payout of nearly $100K? According to Politico, it wasn’t just his behavior that was the problem:
[Former comms director Lauren] Greene claimed in the lawsuit that another Farenthold aide told her the lawmaker had “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about Greene. She also claimed that Farenthold “regularly drank to excess” and told her in February 2014 that he was “estranged from his wife and had not had sex with her in years.”
When she complained about comments Farenthold and a male staffer made to her, Greene said the congressman improperly fired her…
The complaint added: “On June 10, 2014, in response to Haueter’s complaint about [Greene’s] shirt … which Haueter claimed was transparent and showed [Greene’s] nipples, Farenthold told [another woman staffer] that [Greene] could show her nipples whenever she wanted to,” Greene’s complaint asserted.
Greene filed suit in December 2014, then dismissed the complaint after the settlement. A joint statement prepared at the time by the parties (but never released) argued that they were actually saving taxpayers money by avoiding the far greater expense of litigation. That’s some nifty logic. Making casual comments to women staffers about whose nipples you’d like to see and then shoveling cash at them to keep them quiet is, in its own way, a form of fiscal conservatism, apparently.
Two points, though. One: Although the settlement is news, the fact that Greene sued Farenthold isn’t. That was reported at the time, with even more detail about the allegations than Politico’s story today contains. Two: According to the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Gregg Harper, this is the only sexual harassment claim that’s been paid by the Office of Compliance since 2013. The only one! That’s the buried lede. Other settlements involving discrimination of various types (age, veteran status) have been reached during that period for a grand total of $360,000 but allegedly Farenthold’s is the only one involving sexual misconduct. That’s why we’re suddenly finding out about it now. In the recent uproar caused by Dem Rep. Jackie Speier’s claim that $17 million(!) has been paid over the past 20 years, public suspicion fell on Congress as being a den of perverts. Which, ah, they probably are, but if Harper’s telling the truth, sexual hush money from the Office of Compliance is actually a rare thing, at least over the last few years. Farenthold’s being outed by people on the Hill as the lone offender so that the media will stop sniffing around their own offices to find out who the pervs are.
But they’re not going to stop. Remember, the settlement that now has John Conyers in political peril wasn’t paid by the Office of Compliance. It was paid out of his own House office’s budget and treated as severance. How many similar “off the books” settlements have been paid by members of Congress? Could be a lot. After all, there are no rules barring what Conyers did:
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.
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.
Conyers will leave the House soon enough, whether forced out via resignation or next year via retirement. What about Farenthold? If Conyers must go, why shouldn’t he? Bear in mind that his district, Texas’s 27th, is fairly solidly red and should be a hold for the GOP even if a blue wave materializes next fall. (I say “should” because, until Farenthold took the seat in 2010, it had been filled by a Democrat for the previous 28 years.) No real loss to the party if he hits the bricks.