WASHINGTON – The government has paid more than $17 million in taxpayer money over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes and other workplace violations filed by employees of Congress.
The Office of Compliance released the numbers amid a wave of revelations of sexual misconduct in the worlds of entertainment, business and politics that consumed Capitol Hill this past week. Two female lawmakers described incidents of sexual harassment, one in explicit detail, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken apologized to a woman who said he forcibly kissed her and groped her during a 2006 USO tour.
Franken faces a likely investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.
In a statement on the office’s website on Friday, it said “based on the volume of recent inquiries about settlements reached under the Congressional Accountability Act, the executive director is releasing awards and settlement figures for 2015, 2016 and 2017 that would have been released as part of the OOC Annual Report early.”
The independent office doesn’t break the figures down, meaning there’s no way to determine how many of the 264 settlements and awards dealt specifically with cases of sexual misconduct brought by legislative branch employees. The office, which was created in 1995 by the Congressional Accountability Act, said the cases may involve violations of multiple statutes.
The claims range from sexual harassment complaints, allegations of religious and racial discrimination, and overtime pay disputes, according to the office. The money has been paid out between 1997 and 2017. The largest number of settlements, 25, occurred in 2007 when just over $4 million was paid out, according to the figures. The money comes from an account in the U.S. Treasury.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., testified earlier this week that two sitting members of Congress have engaged in sexual harassment. But she refused to identify them because the victims don’t want the lawmakers named publicly. Speier said she is barred from identifying one member because of a nondisclosure agreement, and isn’t identifying the second lawmaker at the victim’s request.
At the same House hearing on sexual harassment prevention, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said she was recently told about a staffer who quit her job after a lawmaker asked her to bring work material to his house, then exposed himself.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has said the House will move ahead on legislation requiring anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and their staffs. The Senate has voted for mandatory training for senators, staff and interns.
Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have introduced legislation to overhaul the process of reporting sexual harassment. Victims of sexual misconduct are currently required to undergo counselling, mediation and a 30-day “cooling off period” before filing a formal complaint with the compliance office.
The bill would eliminate non-disclosure agreements as a condition of initiating mediation and create a public list to identify offices that have sexual harassment complaints pending. The bill would also protect interns and fellows, make mediation and counselling optional, rather than required before a victim can file a lawsuit or formal complaint, and require members of Congress who settle discrimination cases to pay back the Treasury for the amount of the award.