Most of us, including me, learned about the secret slush fund in Congress set aside to pay off victims of sexual harassment or discrimination from its members when the scandal came out from former Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold’s office. Farenthold’s accuser, staffer Lauren Greene received $84,000 in 2015 for her claim of sexual harassment. Greene claimed Farenthold spoke in a sexually provocative way to gauge her interest in him. This was the largest claim paid by the congressional fund, run out of the Office of Compliance.
Farenthold, a four-term Republican congressman from Corpus Christi, announced last December that he would not seek re-election as the payment became known, amidst the growing #MeToo movement. As an investigation by the Congressional Ethics Committee continued, he abruptly announced his resignation in early April.
“While I planned on serving out the remainder of my term in Congress, I know in my heart it’s time for me to move along and look for new ways to serve,” he said in a statement that offered no further explanation for why he will not complete the final eight months of his term.
This set the wheels in motion for a special election. Governor Abbott called for a special election to be held on June 30, 2018. Before that election, a primary run-off will be held Tuesday. The winner in November will serve a full term beginning January 2019. Farenthold pledged to repay the $84,000 as he claimed to accept personal responsibility that he should pay, not the American taxpayer while denying guilt in the sexual harassment claim.
“I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for this,” Farenthold said.
So, Abbott sent a letter to Farenthold demanding that he pay for the costs of the special election. He figured if Farenthold was repaying American taxpayers, he should begin by repaying Texas taxpayers.
In a letter to Farenthold on Wednesday, Abbott said the former congressman should return the money to taxpayers by funding the June 30 special election to finish his term.
“While you have publicly offered to reimburse the $84,000 in taxpayer funds you wrongly used to settle a sexual harassment claim, there is no legal recourse requiring you to give that money back to Congress,” Abbott wrote. “I am urging you to give those funds back to the counties in your district to cover the costs of the June 30, 2018, special election.”
“This seat must be filled, and the counties and taxpayers in the 27th Congressional District should not again pay the price for your actions,” Abbott added. He requested a response from Farenthold by May 2.
This assumes that Farenthold was sincere in making a financial reimbursement. Turns out he wasn’t. In an interview with ABC News, he lays the justification at the feet of his attorney.
Farenthold then made clear that he has no intention of repaying an $84,000 taxpayer settlement stemming from a 2014 complaint by a former congressional aide alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.
“I will say this on the record: I have been advised by my attorneys not to repay that,” Farenthold told ABC. “That’s why it hasn’t been repaid.”
Farenthold refused to disclose his attorneys’ justification for that legal advice.
So, what is the next step for the former conservative radio show host and congressman? Why, a lobbying gig, of course. After actively pursuing a job to lobby for the Calhoun Port Authority, he was hired as a legislative liaison with a salary of $160,000. Now a private citizen, he is has decided to not answer any more questions.
Farenthold, in a brief phone interview, said that he’s “a private citizen now” and is “trying to not be a news item anymore.” He declined to comment on what the Florida reference meant. He didn’t dispute the general timeline for how he obtained his new employment.
“I started looking for a job as soon as I was out of office,” he said.
His contract is being questioned, as the port authority may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. A local newspaper challenges the legality of the contract due to vagueness in the meeting notice posted.
The Victoria Advocate is investigating its legal options in challenging the May 9 action on behalf of the public.
“This is one of the most clear-cut examples of a notice violation that I’ve ever seen,” said longtime media attorney Joe Larsen, who serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Larsen said the notice the port posted at the Calhoun County courthouse May 4 was too vague to be legal. The posting said the board would go into closed session “for the purposes of deliberating the appointment, employment, compensation, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”
A Texas Open Meetings complaint can be filed against the port in district court in Calhoun County. If a judge determines there was a violation, Farenthold’s hiring could be null and void.
While he makes statements that he doesn’t want to be a newsmaker anymore, he has done just that during the past few days as his latest career move is held to public scrutiny. The Calhoun Port Authority has taken the decision over to the office of the Texas Attorney General.
“The request for AG ruling by the Calhoun Port Authority would not affect any Open Meetings Act lawsuit,” added Joe Larsen, a Houston media attorney who serves on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Those attorneys said Thursday the agenda the port posted for its May 9 meeting had to specifically state the board would be discussing hiring Farenthold as a lobbyist. It did not.
In a statement sent Friday afternoon, Calhoun County Port Authority Board Chairman Randy L. Boyd said he’s confident the AG will not see it that way “because our executive director (Charles Hausmann) has the authority under the Texas Water Code and the board adopted an employee policy manual to hire and fire all employees except for the port director and assistant port director.”
He said they’ll respect the attorney general’s opinion regardless.
By the way, Farenthold doesn’t appear to be hurting for money. In 2015, his net worth was valued at $5,789,824. It would appear he had the ability to make good on his pledge to reimburse taxpayers and at least avoid that part of all this mess.