Bill could make U.S. Congress members liable for harassment payouts

Government has paid more than $166,000 in public money to settle past claims

Bill could make U.S. Congress members liable for harassment payouts
The U.S. Capitol building is lit at dusk ahead of planned votes on tax reform in Washington, Dec. 18. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts




WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Lawmakers of both parties are working on legislation that would make members of Congress liable for settlements of sexual harassment claims against them, as new data shows public funds have been used to settle nearly a dozen cases of misconduct over the last decade.

From 2008 through 2012, the employment office for Congress paid more than US$166,000 in public money to settle eight claims against lawmakers alleging sexual harassment or discrimination, according to data it provided on Tuesday to Representative Gregg Harper, the Republican chairman of the House Administration Committee who is drafting a bill to overhaul how Congress handles sexual harassment.

The Office of Compliance previously said it has resolved three other cases since 2013.

Provisions in settlement agreements and other legal limits block the office from disclosing details of the payouts it has made on behalf of lawmakers, including identities of those involved, an issue that has come to light as allegations of misconduct swirl around Capitol Hill.

A growing wave of women reporting abuse or misconduct has brought down powerful men recently, from movie producer Harvey Weinstein to popular television personality Matt Lauer, as well as one of the longest-serving Democrats in Congress, former Representative John Conyers.

Harper said on Tuesday he hopes to file a bipartisan bill by Wednesday evening overhauling how Congress handles sexual harassment that would include making lawmakers personally liable for settlements.

“They should have to reimburse” the government for payouts, he told reporters. “There’s no doubt that members have made it clear that taxpayer dollars should not be used for the purposes of settling a sexual harassment claim."

Harper expects swift action, with the House voting on the bill next month. Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, who has proposed similar legislation and has been working with Harper and other Republicans, said she was "thrilled" about the bill.

Bipartisan legislation on sexual harassment was introduced in the Senate last week.

In a letter to Harper the compliance office's executive director said it had paid $354,465.85 to settle 16 total claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2012.

According to the letter, eight claims included sexual harassment or discrimination, and often involved other violations such as breaking federal wage rules. Two claims were simply categorized as "retaliation" while the rest were focused on racial, age or disability discrimination.

The largest amount paid over those years was $85,000, labeled as "sexual harassment and harassment because of retaliation."

The office does not have investigatory authority and cannot probe allegations, said executive director Susan Tsui Grundmann in the letter.

Settlements typically have nondisclosure provisions, she said, adding the office has not found an admission of liability in any of the settlement documents.


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