WASHINGTON — New questions are being raised about the lack of accountability in how sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill are handled, an issue that gained more attention Tuesday after Rep. John Conyers acknowledged he had settled a complaint with an accuser in virtual secret.
The settlement reached between the congressman and a former Conyers staffer was done outside the scope of the official reporting mechanism and used the congressman's taxpayer allocated discretionary fund to pay the victim, adding another layer of secrecy to an already confusing and byzantine process that leaves the public and members of Congress, including leadership, in the dark.
Conyers' acknowledged in a statement that his office paid his accuser $27,000, an amount he said was tantamount to a severance package. A report by BuzzFeed Monday night alleged that Conyers had settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with the ex-staffer who claimed she'd been fired after refusing his "sexual advances," an allegation Conyers "vehemently" denied.
The House Ethics Committee announced on Tuesday that it has opened an investigation into the matter.
"The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative John Conyers, Jr. may have engaged in sexual harassment of members of his staff, discriminated against certain staff on the basis of age, and used official resources for impermissible personal purposes," House Ethics Committee Chair Susan Brooks, R-Ind., and Ranking Democrat Ted Deutsch, D-Fla., said in a statement.
But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., one of the House members pushing hardest to reform the system of reporting sexual harassment complaints within Congress, said Conyers' settlement simply represented another way to bypass accountability.
Speier has been critical of the reporting process run under the auspices of the Office of Compliance in Congress, which has settled all types of work place complaints. She noted that the avenue Conyers used has even less oversight.
"Beyond the sexual harassment allegations are allegations that call into question the amount of money that is used to settle sexual harassment cases, and whether some Members are using their taxpayer-funded office budgets to make settlements under the guise of severance payments," Speier said in a statement. "If this is true, the amount of taxpayer money used to settle these cases is even higher than the number that's been provided by the Office of Compliance."
As the issue of sexual harassment has risen in visibility within the halls of Congress in recent weeks, attention has been on the Office of Compliance as the official venue for victims of harassment — or any other workplace complaints — working for a senator or House member to file a complaint. The process has resulted in settlements amounting to more than $15 million worth of taxpayers' funds since 2001.
Members of Congress, including Speier, have introduced the Me Too Congress Act that gives victims more rights throughout the process, including eliminating a mandatory "cooling off period" before a formal complaint can be filed.
But the Me Too proposal wouldn't apply in Conyers' instance because the settlement was reached outside Congress' official reporting office.
Conyers likely used funds from his members representational allowance account, also known as an MRA, a discretionary pot of money for each member of Congress that can be used for "official" expenses.
After the complaint was settled, the victim was transitioned from a full-time staff member to a temporary employee and was paid $27,000 over the course of three months.
The House Committee on Ethics attempted to tighten the requirements of what MRA's could be used for last year but never expressly prohibited — or expressly allowed — the money to be used to settle inter-office disputes like sexual harassment claims, Speier's office said.
Conyers defended the payment and the use of funds in a statement.
"My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative. The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment," Conyers said.
Kathleen Clark, a lawyer and government ethics professor at Washington University Law School, said Conyers' use of his discretionary funds to pay off the victim means there could be more offices who are using the funds for similar purposes. She says it's a tangential issue that should be examined.
"The ethics investigation needs to examine not only Conyers' abusive behavior of this employee but also his use of this account," Clark said.
If a claim is settled through the OOC, the top Republican and top Democrat of the House Administration Committee must approve the funding from the Treasury to pay the claim. The use of internal office funds has no such oversight unless the Ethics Committee is compelled to open an investigation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed to change the accountability process.
"I directed the Committee on House Administration to conduct a full review of all policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination," Ryan said in a statement. "People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination."