Rep. Alcee Hastings admits drinking with staffers of a commission he served on and making sexually loaded comments, but was it sexual harassment? Or is the lawsuit and related ethics inquiry into the Florida Democrat’s behavior fallout from a soured crush that became fodder for a novel?
Although the House Ethics Committee announced today that it will continue reviewing the allegations without forming an investigative subcommittee, which could be the committee’s final public statement on the matter unless it decides to hold an ethics trial, a report compiled by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics shows that accounts given by Hastings and his accuser, Winsome Packer, sometimes coincide.
Packer worked at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Hastings was once its chairman.
Hastings did tell Packer during a trip to Vienna, Austria, that he had trouble falling asleep after having sex — but he also could have made the comment in the presence of others, according to a summary of an interview OCE investigators conducted with the lawmaker.
Hastings also allowed that he had wondered aloud during bar-time chitchat how Members — especially females — can wear the same underwear for an entire day on the Hill but added he did not specifically comment on the matter to Packer.
“He stated that during this conversation people were drinking and ‘one-upping’ each other and that his comments were not ‘out of the blue,’” according to the interview summary attached as an exhibit to the OCE’s referral to the committee.
Although the two did converse at a hotel bar in Lisbon, Portugal, he was not “clearly drunk,” as Packer described, but had merely consumed two double helpings of Courvoisier cognac and Coke, Hastings said.
Hastings, in a letter to Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), acknowledged that some of the “completely innocuous allegations made by the complainant have been corroborated,” but the idea that he pursued a sexual relationship with Packer is false.
“The acts alleged are contrary to my character and to the main objective of my career in Congress, advancing the civil rights of all people,” Hastings said in a statement after the committee’s announcement. “I never had a romantic or sexual interest in her, nor did I ever express or otherwise suggest that I had any such interest.”
The committee’s investigation of Hastings began in October when the OCE referred its findings on the lawmaker for further review. The independent office began looking into Hastings’ behavior after a lawsuit was filed against the Florida Democrat in March that accused him of making unwelcome sexual comments and physical advances.
Between March and September of last year, OCE investigators reviewed documents provided by Hastings, the commission and the complaining witness; interviewed eight witnesses; and attempted to interview at least four other individuals who did not cooperate. Its report concluded that there was enough “probable cause to believe that Rep. Hastings violated House rules, standards of conduct and federal law as a result of his interactions” with his former employee that merited further review.
Hastings blasted the OCE’s investigative process as flawed, alleging that key witnesses were not interviewed and that the office’s application of the rules for referral to the committee was “riddled with error.”
“To be blunt, OCE conducted a shoddy investigation, and now I am left to pay the price for its lack of diligence and poor investigative techniques,” Hastings wrote to Bonner and Sánchez in November.
Hastings likewise pointed out in a statement that Packer began publicizing her book “A Personal Agenda” around the same time as she filed her complaint. The fictional account of the Hill is billed as an “authentic, behind-the-scenes view of how Capitol Hill and Washington movers and shakers wheel and deal,” according to its description on Amazon.com.
“The OCE did not explore the connection between the complainant’s allegations and her side career as a novelist,” Hastings said in a statement.
Packer also acknowledged in a 2007 email included in the OCE report that she had “a crush” on Hastings.
The Ethics Committee’s review of the matter will now enter a phase known as a Rule 18(a) investigation, which is essentially an open-ended probe that allows the committee to “consider any information” that a Member has broken Congressional rules and reserves the right to gather such information until an investigative subcommittee has been established.
Hastings had asked the committee to consider such a move if it did not dismiss his case outright.
“I strongly urge [the committee] to defer the matter until the complainant’s civil lawsuit is resolved or, at a minimum, is at a more advanced stage,” Hastings told Bonner and Sánchez. “A parallel investigation by the Committee will unfairly jeopardize my defense of the litigation.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.