Congress

IG Report: Some members of Congress sexually harassed night-shift custodians

Architect of the Capitol officials accused of creating ‘culture of permissibility’

An Architect of the Capitol worker paints the wall at the top of the escalator to the Senate subway in the Capitol in November 2015. A recent report alleges a sexual harassment ‘culture of permissibility’ in the AOC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of Congress allegedly sexually harassed night shift custodial staff while they cleaned their offices. Sexual harassment prevention training went off the rails. And the Architect of the Capitol has no unified system for effectively tracking complaints and resolutions of sexual harassment cases.

These are just some of the findings in a recent inspector general’s report on sexual harassment within the AOC in the last decade.

The report, which examined the last ten years, asserts that some AOC leaders have created a culture of permissibility and outlines challenges the agency faces as it attempts to shift toward a culture of a safe and appropriate workplace.

The 53-page report includes data on sexual harassment cases within the agency between October 2008 and October 2018.

Some jurisdictions within the agency refused to cooperate with the OIG probe.

The report states, for example, that the Human Capital Management Division’s refusal to provide details “left the OIG unable to determine the nature of many of the complaints,” because many were described vaguely as “sexual harassment, inappropriate remarks or inappropriate touching.”

The report identified 57 incidents of sexual harassment since 2008. The accused included 24 supervisory-level employees. About 44 percent of the complaints were substantiated.

“Given the size of the AOC’s workforce, we note that the actual number of sexual harassment complaints is relatively low,” the report reads. “There remains, however, the perception that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem within the AOC.”

Lawmakers mentioned

One allegation in the report was that AOC workers on the job endured sexual harassment by members of Congress and their staff. Some custodial staff, especially those on the night shift, have reported to agency leadership about their exposure to harassment while working in lawmaker offices.

“Staff have reported overhearing harassing conversations, being the target of harassment, and observing materials such as pornography, but do not speak up due to fear of losing their jobs,” the OIG report states.

The report did not name specific lawmakers or state when the allegations were made.

The House and Senate embarked on a mission in 2017 and 2018 to overhaul harassment reporting and resolution processes for staffers on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers talked extensively about the imbalance of power that can be at play when a member harasses a low-ranking staffer or intern. But the power imbalance is more stark when an overnight custodian faces inappropriate conduct by a member of Congress.

ICYMI: Senate Quickly Passes Sexual Harassment Bill By Unanimous Consent

“No one had an answer when we asked, ‘What happens if the harasser is a member of Congress?’”one AOC worker told investigators in a confidential questionnaire. “This was not a hypothetical question. It happens.”

“Past issues of temper, volatility and threatened violence by members of Congress were weakly addressed by AOC executives and other members of Congress,” another said.

There’s no official count, but reports put the number of lawmakers who sleep in their offices rather than rent an apartment in Washington in the dozens. Some sleep on mattresses in their multiroom office suites that they then stow in closets during the day; others on futons; and still others on Murphy beds that fold into the wall.

No matter the arrangement, the trash still needs to be collected and offices cleaned. And that raises the possibility of workers encountering lawmakers in their boxer shorts.

At the very least, happening upon a barely dressed lawmaker could be an uncomfortable experience — even if no misconduct is at play.

And there are others …

There are plenty of other people who are at the Capitol and potentially could be the source of a harassment complaint, including tourists, agency staffers and Capitol Police.

And the report suggested there is a lack of guidance on how employees should handle harassment when the perpetrator is not an AOC employee and not subject to AOC policies.

“I think the entire agency is unaware that most of the harassment I experience comes from individuals outside the agency, like our partners in the USCP and the thousands of visitors that we get every day,” said a Capitol Visitor Center employee in the survey.

The CVC’s workforce generated a disproportionately high number of complaints. Its staff of approximately 120 employees, eight of whom are supervisors, made nine complaints. The CVC interacts with 2.5 million visitors annually.

One CVC employee allegedly was sexually harassed by a member of the press corps working in visitor center. Once the issue was reported, management coordinated to have the CNN employee’s press credentials suspended, and the network eventually fired the harasser following an investigation, according to the report.

That incident was not included in data presented to the inspector general because the Diversity, Inclusion and Dispute Resolution Office director told the OIG that it was “resolved by a few swift actions without a formal claim being filed or case being opened,” according to the report.

And why wasn’t it reported?

The administrative assistant was out of the office and therefore not added to the weekly docket used to track contacts, claims and management referrals, the report states.

One of the OIG’s main conclusions: The AOC “lacks strong internal controls with regard to tracking these complaints and that current policy is insufficient regarding the prohibition of and response to sexual harassment.”

The inspector general called on the AOC to prioritize tracking cases of harassment, saying, “No improvement in investigative technique or punitive standards will be sufficient in the absence of a quality automated tracking mechanism.”

A tracking system, the OIG said, will allow the agency to identify repeat violators and implement a more comprehensive response

(Not) trusting the process

Employees and management told the OIG that the process to handle complaints is not trusted — and there is a perception that the Diversity, Inclusion and Dispute Resolution Office isn’t sufficiently independent.

Filing a complaint can be a complicated and confusing process.

Going to the DIDR is one option. If the complaint is is resolved to the employee's satisfaction, the Office of General Counsel and Office of Congressional Workplace Rights are not involved or informed.

But if the resolution involves disciplinary action, the AOC general counsel gets involved.

Employees who file complaints to DIDR and are unsatisfied with the outcome can go to the OCWR— and all action at DIDR is terminated.

A complaint also can be filed directly with the OCWR. Then, the AOC general counsel is alerted when it moves through the process, but DIDR is never informed.

Efforts to clarify the process in writing still has left some AOC employees befuddled.

A 2013 memo to AOC employees, which has been reissued in recent years, directs employees to report issues to their supervisor or to make a “formal” complaint with the Office of Compliance. But the memo does not explain what is meant by “formal,” or how a formalized complaint affects the potential outcome.

“The whole system is [designed] to protect the Architect of the Capitol, EEO, Office of Compliance or any other assistance under this Agency,” said one respondent to the OIG survey.

The report highlights ingrained perceptions that confidentiality in the reporting and resolution process is not realistic and that complaints against management or leadership would not be taken seriously.

“The AOC’s HR representative met with and told me she always tried to meet management halfway, how do you do that when one party is in pain? Everything I said got back to the [Jurisdiction Head]. No confidentiality. Will never ask for assistance here. Will leave first,” one AOC worker said.

One suggestion made to the OIG by AOC executive leadership team members was to launch a targeted campaign describing the avenues for reporting cases, using visual graphics.

“The diverse workforce includes employees for whom English is not a native language, as well as adults who are not literate,” the report said.

When a complaint is made to the OCWR, the burden of proof is on the victim. Victims either hire a lawyer to represent them or represent themselves.

“For lower-graded AOC employees, in particular, both options are out of reach. These employees may inherently have lower levels of education and income, making it difficult to pursue their cases through external representation,” the OIG said.

In coordination with the OCWR, the DIDR launched a confidential hotline voicemail in January 2019. The goal was to give AOC employees a 24-hour resource to make reports and have the option to leave their name and phone number.

The OIG has recommended that the hotline be contracted out, to boost confidence in its independence, and improve consistency and confidentiality.

According to the OIG, the process of researching outsourcing options is already underway.

Training trouble

Tailoring sexual harassment prevention training to a diverse workforce was another problem that emerged. The wide range of roles at the agency — from historian to electrician to custodian — has posed challenges as the agency attempts to manage, train and monitor behavior in an array of workplace scenarios.

In 2018, the Diversity, Inclusion and Dispute Resolution Office launched a new in-person training for all AOC employees, for separate sessions for workers and managers. There is a complementary online course that all new AOC employees must complete within 30 days of being hired.

But the launch of the new program “had the unintended consequence of revealing outdated beliefs and attitudes,” the OIG report states.

“Many left the training thinking inappropriate behaviors were ‘okay’ just because they were technically legal. I think the training unintentionally validated inappropriate behavior,” one OIG survey respondent wrote.

Approximately a third of the workforce in the trainings, many of whom were a third shift of skilled labor employees, exhibited what the report described as “cultural desistance” during the sexual harassment prevention training sessions.

“In early trainings, many employees left feeling more harassed than they did in their day-to-day work environments,” the report reads.

But inappropriate behavior and perceptions are certainly not limited to the custodial workers and skilled laborers.

A 2018 OIG investigation found that an accused AOC employee’s official email traffic included “inappropriate and sexist” messages between senior executives.

“The nature of the emails between these executives was alarming and demonstrated the need for the AOC to address outdated cultural norms at all levels of the AOC workforce,” according to the report.

Just last week, House Building Superintendent Bill Weidemeyer and Senate Building Superintendent Takis Tzamaras were placed on leave pending an investigation into inappropriate emails. It is not yet clear what their emails contained.

The OIG found that the use of “degrading and cavalier language” in workplace communication, especially by those in leadership positions, has contributed to a “seemingly permissive environment, allowing offenders to minimize the inappropriateness of their conduct.”

“Management should refrain from using phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ when excusing inappropriate behavior,” one survey respondent recommended.

In addition to formalizing a system to track complaints, the OIG suggests in the report that the AOC establish standardized penalties for violations. The OIG also encourages the agency to incorporate zero tolerance language into the missions statement and policies.

 

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