"Zero tolerance" Dem lawmaker denies sex-harassment problem in own office; Update: Suspends him hours later

“You have to establish this benchmark of zero tolerance,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence told George Stephanopoulos last month on ABC’s This Week, arguing for her new get-tough approach to sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. According to Politico’s Rachel Bade, Lawrence seems to have trouble setting that benchmark in her own office.  Bade spoke to three women in Lawrence’s office who claim they told her of harassment and inappropriate physical contact from her chief of staff, but say that Lawrence has yet to take any action:

But three former aides to Lawrence, all female, told POLITICO they personally relayed concerns to the congresswoman about how the chief of staff, Dwayne Duron Marshall, treated women. Each believed they made it clear to Lawrence that women in the office did not feel comfortable around Marshall or that he treated women differently than men. Two said they told her Marshall was the reason they were leaving her office. And one said she specifically cited “inappropriate” comments and physical contact.

Lawrence denied in an interview that any current or former employee complained specifically about sexual harassment. She did, however, acknowledge what she called “management-style issues” in her office and said she responded with “individual personnel actions” — though she would not say against whom or why.

Lawrence may be telling the truth, at least in the literal sense. Later in Bade’s report, she writes that the women reported Marshall’s actions to Lawrence without using the term “sexual harassment” in their complaints. However, they also said that the complaints spoke for themselves, and that Lawrence is dodging her responsibility by parsing words:

“She’s complicit because she knows,” said one of the three ex-staffers who said she spoke with Lawrence about Marshall. “She knows he makes comments. She knows he rubs the back and rubs the shoulders … She’d say, ‘I know there are some problems, but he has his good points too,’ and ‘[the good] outweighs the other stuff.’”

Another former aide, upon hearing Lawrence’s denial, said: “She’s completely full of shit.”

During her appearance on ABC’s This Week, Lawrence highlighted her experience as a private-sector investigator as part of her argument for the “zero tolerance benchmark” she espouses. If that’s the case, then Lawrence knew full well that the women who came forward had no requirement to utter some magic words for her to comprehend that this was a sexual harassment issue. If the claims that Bade reports are true, then Lawrence hasn’t set a zero-tolerance benchmark in her own office — she’s set a very different kind of benchmark that judges the entirety of Marshall’s value to Lawrence above that of the treatment of her staff. In that, Lawrence is hardly alone; the abrupt resignation of Tim Murphy after his scandal emerged likely had something to do with a similar benchmark for his allegedly abusive chief of staff Susan Mosychuk.

Needless to say, Lawrence’s project should still go forward, but with other leadership — perhaps a representative that can front this with somewhat less hypocrisy. Lawrence appears more of a case study than a champion when it comes to cleaning up Capitol Hill, if Bade’s report pans out.

Here’s the panel interview from October 29th. Don’t bet on Lawrence being the last elected official talking out of both sides of the mouth when it comes to this issue, or that all of those so exposed will filter neatly into ideological or demographic categories. It’s more likely to blow up across the whole board, once victims feel strong enough to speak out.

Update, 7 pm ET: Better late than never?

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence has placed her chief of staff on administrative leave while she investigates allegations that he sexually harassed multiple former staff members.

Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat, said she would have investigated sexual harassment allegations and fired anyone “engaged in sexually harassing behavior” in her office had she been notified. But, Lawrence said in a statement, “none of the concerns brought to my attention involved allegations of sexual harassment.”

That’s nonsense on stilts. She had enough information prior to the publication of Bade’s story to take action. She simply chose not to do so, until it came back to bite her.