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Inside the largest sexual harassment settlement in Congress

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Inside the largest sexual harassment settlement in Congress

Image: Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
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J. Scott Applewhite
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WASHINGTON — Of all the secret deals cut on behalf of accused members of congress, the one that resulted in the largest settlement yet uncovered may be the most surprising. The details provide a window into a process so opaque, convoluted and confusing that even the accused congressman was left in the dark about exactly how and why his accuser ended up being paid $220,000 for her claim.

With new harassment accusations being revealed on a nearly daily basis in Congress, documents obtained by NBC News from this one case shed light on how taxpayer money ends up being used to essentially sweep such incidents under a bureaucratic rug with little accountability.

The documents include drafts of a letter approving the settlement and a confidentiality agreement as well as an internal "lessons learned" memo written by a House employment lawyer. And while many of the accusations and details of the case remain in dispute, the eventual settlement is a case study of a process shrouded in secrecy despite being funded by taxpayers.

The Complaint

In 2011, Winsome Packer, a congressional staffer who worked for the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (known as the Helsinki Commission) filed a complaint against the commission, alleging that its chairman at the time, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., made unwanted sexual advances toward her and that she was threatened with retaliation.

The details of Packer's specific allegations are recorded in the complaint she also brought in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Publicly filed court documents in that lawsuit show that Packer alleged that she "was forced to endure" repeated "unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwelcome touching" by Hastings. In describing the incidents, Packer alleged that Hastings had hugged her multiple times, sometimes in front of witnesses at public events, pressing his whole body against her, and his face to her face.

Packer also claimed that after she complained to the commission's staff director, she was subject to threats of retaliation by both the director and Hastings himself, including "threats of termination."

Image: Winsome Packer
Winsome Packer Courtesy of Winsome Packer

Hastings, who has been in Congress since 1993, has denied Packer's allegations. He called them "malicious" and "absolutely false" in a letter obtained by NBC News.

The Office of Congressional Ethics referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee in 2010. After reviewing more than one thousand pages of documents and interviewing eight witnesses, the committee closed the case after finding that while the congressman admitted to having made some unprofessional comments, it had found "no additional evidence supporting [Packer's ] allegations."

The federal court also dismissed the case, with prejudice, in June 2014.

Both sides maintain they were wronged. But this case, which took four years to settle, shows the system is so flawed that even Hastings' House-provided attorney issued a retrospective critical of the process. In an internal congressional document obtained by NBC News this week, Gloria Lett, an attorney for the Office of House Employment Counsel, offered some "lessons learned" from Packer's case that recommended the adoption of new policies to handle such claims.

The Settlement

So how did Winsome Packer end up getting a $220,000 taxpayer-funded settlement in May 2014?

And why was that payment, settling sexual harassment claims against a member of the House of Representatives, not included in a disclosure to the House Administration Committee of all such settlement payments in the last five years, provided by Congress' Office of Compliance, the congressional office that approved the payment?

The puzzle of a byzantine process starts with what Packer says happened when she first made the complaint.

Packer claims that from the outset she faced a system that was onerous and intimidating. In an interview, she told NBC News that the process "is designed to totally demolish you and convince you to drop it."

At the beginning, like any accuser who files a complaint with the Office of Compliance (OOC), Packer paid for her own legal representation while it's the taxpayers who provide free legal counsel for the member of Congress or the office involved in the complaint.

Packer completed an initial requirement of a 30-days-or-less, mandatory counseling period for accusers, and then proceeded to a second requirement of a 30-day mediation period. She called that process "worse than the harassment."

She and one of her lawyers describe an attempt to undermine her credibility and intimidate her. George Chuzi, who represented Packer in her first meeting regarding the complaint, said the House lawyers were "unbelievably aggressive."

Two government-paid lawyers representing Hastings sat across the table, as did her immediate supervisor. According to Packer and Chuzi, among the first things the House counsel said is that Packer is a "liar and an extortionist." Packer added that the House attorneys also made an initial demand: Packer had to quit. Chuzi said he was "in shock" about the treatment of the accuser.

Packer continued to press her case in federal court for three years.

Packer eventually received a settlement payment of $220,000, an amount confirmed by documents reviewed by NBC News and the largest known about since the Congressional Accountability Act was passed in 1995.

One document obtained by NBC News details early draft terms of Packer's settlement, and it is one of few such documents that have become public. The others have not been released because confidentiality requirements, established by Congress and signed into federal law as the Congressional Accountability Act, bind accuser, accused and other legal entities from disclosing any terms or details.

Despite these confidentiality requirements, Packer said she had decided to speak out because the environment has changed for accusers and she has little to lose. Packer, 60, who worked for the commission from 2007 until 2014, said she has not worked since the settlement was reached nearly four years ago, and is now living with her sister in Florida.

Prior to her work as a policy adviser to the Helsinki Commission, Packer worked as a GOP staff member on the House Homeland Security Committee from 2003 through 2006.

But when NBC News directed questions about the settlement and the payment to the two congressional entities the documents showed were involved in establishing and approving them — the Office of Compliance and the Senate Office of the Chief Counsel for Employment — neither provided answers.

In an email, the Office of Compliance's media representative wrote that "the Congressional Accountability Act requires that the OOC maintain the confidentially of contacts made with the office. The OOC cannot comment on whether matters have or have not been filed with the office."

The Senate legal office did not respond to questions — including why it reached a settlement in this case even though Hastings is a member of the House.

The Process

In the "lessons" memo written by Lett, the counsel representing Hastings' side, she admitted that "the manner in which the case was resolved was not ideal, and, going forward, we strongly recommend that the commission consider adopting regulations or policies to avoid this type of situation."

According to Lett's memo, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who succeeded Hastings as chairman of the Helsinki Commission in 2011, did not want to move forward with the settlement. But Smith said he advocated heavily for Packer to be given due process.

"During my chairmanship, I worked to ensure that a woman's claim of sexual harassment against another member of congress was taken seriously, her voice heard, and that in the pursuit of justice all relevant facts impartially considered," Smith said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

But Hastings sent letters to Smith and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who was the ranking member of the commission at the time, in 2012, saying, "I strongly oppose any settlement with Ms. Packer that would involve her receiving any money or things of value," calling her allegations "absolutely false."

Image: Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., left, confers with House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 16, 2016. J. Scott Applewhite

According to the "lessons" memo, Packer contacted the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment's office and "indicated her interest in settling the case." A draft confidentiality agreement between Packer and the commission, obtained by NBC News, forced Packer to resign in order to accept the settlement. She also had to agree to never seek employment with the commission again.

The agreement was also made with the commission, not Hastings, and required commission employees to attend a sexual harassment training session. Hastings was not required to attend. According to the settlement, the commission's harassment politics also had to be redrafted and distributed them at the seminar.

The Senate office didn't communicate with the House office that first opened the case on the terms and details of the settlement, according to Lett's "lessons" memo. Other than a conversation between Hastings and Cardin in 2014 that a settlement had been reached, Hastings was never provided any details of the settlement until it was reported in the press last week.

"Until (last Friday) evening, I had not seen the settlement agreement between the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and Ms. Packer," Hastings said. "At no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made."

It's not the first settlement where the accused was not made aware of the details. An attorney to former Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., said the congressman was unaware of $100,000 worth of sexual harassment-related payments to former staffers in 2010, according to ABC News. Massa's attorney, James D. Doyle, said that the process is unfair to both the victim and the accused.

Further shrouding this taxpayer-funded process and payouts is the lack of information provided to lawmakers and the public. The amount of Packer's settlement, the largest known to date, was not included in recent details about sexual harassment settlements and payments given to the House Administration Committee, including an $84,000 settlement for an employee of Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.

Congress has wrestled with these issues in a more urgent way since the recent wave of sexual misconduct allegations began sweeping through virtually every sector of America over the past months, including several high-profile cases that have brought down members of the House and Senate.

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee, told NBC News that he will introduce bipartisan legislation next week to reform the entire adjudication process for accusers and the accused as a way to provide more transparency to the public.

In the meantime, leaders on Capitol Hill continue to struggle to explain how these past settlements happened in the first place.