The idea of settlements for congressional misconduct being paid secretly with taxpayer money in a republic is absurd. On what planet does a government that makes even a pretense of accountability allow the miscreants in its ranks to engage in malfeasance and stick the public with the bill without even admitting their misdeeds? If I have to pay for Congressman Lech’s grope habit, tell me what he’s up to so that I can vote him out next time. Harvey Weinstein at least had to notify the Weinstein Company when he reached a settlement with someone. Congress ostensibly works for us yet we have no idea what “our employees” are doing with our money to cover up their personal scumbaggery.
The Al Franken story is attention-grabbing. But I think the secret House sex harassment settlements–authorized by whom, using what legal and fact-finding processes, known to whom else?–have the potential to be more explosive. And have there been no similar cases in the Senate?
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) November 16, 2017
I couldn’t agree more. It’s a scandal and the GOP leadership should address it. There’s a big caveat, though, to the uproar about the secret settlements, specifically these numbers that are being passed around online:
Congressional Office of Compliance releases year-by-year breakdown of harassment settlements and awards: pic.twitter.com/vxbezi22wb
— Reid Wilson (@PoliticsReid) November 16, 2017
The figures are accurate but the tweet is not. According to the Office of Compliance, those aren’t the annual amounts that were paid to settle harassment claims, they’re the amounts that were paid to settle all claims. From the office’s letter:
A large portion of cases originate from employing offices in the legislative branch other than the House of Representatives or the Senate, and involve various statutory provisions incorporated by the CAA, such as the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The statistics on payments are not further broken down into specific claims because settlements may involve cases that allege violations of more than one of the 13 statutes incorporated by the CAA.
Not only are these numbers not limited to sexual misconduct claims, they’re not limited to payouts on behalf of members of Congress. They include settlements reached by staffers and legislative offices. The ballyhooed $15 million figure that’s being tossed around (it’s actually $17 million if you total up the annual sums from the Office of Compliance) was apparently introduced by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who first alleged that there were secret harassment settlements. But Speier appears to be confused. There may be harassment settlements among the payouts listed above — that’s the big secret! — but by no means were all of them for that purpose. Speier’s office has since tried to undo her mistake but now that the number is out there and in the public imagination there’s probably no stopping it from spreading.
Even so, the mystery remains. Are there secret sexual harassment settlements that have been paid with public money? If so, there’s no civic reason we shouldn’t have the details about them, however belatedly. There may be a *legal* reason, namely, if the parties signed nondisclosure agreements, but that would raise the issue of why the U.S. Congress has agreed to be party to opaque financial settlements for misconduct in the first place. If nothing else, hiding the fact of sexual harassment payouts leaves unsuspecting women (and men) vulnerable to being preyed on by the secret harassers going forward. The Republican majority in each chamber should pass a rule prohibiting undisclosed settlements for misconduct among members and staff as a matter of basic transparency. And as Bradley Byrne suggested recently, anyone who’s benefited from having Uncle Sam pick up the tab for his misconduct should have to reimburse taxpayers now.
Here’s Al Franken’s accuser, Leeann Tweeden, reading the apology letter she received from him. If no else accuses him of wrongdoing he’s probably going to survive this.