Politics

Inspired by #MeToo, Some Staffers Are Telling Congress’ Secrets

Beneficiaries of confidential settlements challenge code of silence

A former staff member of Oregon Rep. Greg Walden says he was inspired by the #MeToo movement to release documents outlining a $7,000 workplace discrimination and disability settlement with Walden’s office in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Cody Standiford is not exactly saying #MeToo.  He’s never been a victim of sexual misconduct.

But he may end up helping congressional staffers who have. The Iraq War veteran recently defied a legal agreement to shed light on how Congress handles harassment and discrimination complaints.

Standiford, 42, a former staff member to Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden, released documents outlining the secret workplace discrimination and disability settlement agreement that ended his job in 2013.

Standiford’s is among the most brazen challenges to a confidentiality clause in a congressional harassment and discrimination settlement to emerge so far in the aftermath of revelations of widespread sexual misconduct in American institutions.

Critics say confidentiality agreements are designed to shield members of Congress from repercussions of their actions. And the secrecy has complicated efforts to assess the scope of sexual harassment and other workplace discrimination in the legislative branch.

Standiford’s disclosure — and others like it — have been met so far by silence from congressional officials.

The former staffer got $7,000 in a settlement to resolve his complaint. He alleged that his hours in Walden’s district office were cut after he missed work for combat-related health problems.

Standiford said he was inspired by the thousands of victims who have braved professional and personal backlash to force a national conversation about workplace injustices. Taxpayers and voters deserve to know when they are footing the bill to resolve a complaint against an elected official, he said.

“I feel like the need for transparency in this process far outweighs any consequence I might face for speaking truthfully about it,” he said.

Walden said in a statement that he has “never discriminated against an employee, and did not do so in this case.”

“Cody’s decision to violate the terms of the agreement he signed speaks for itself,” the Oregon Republican said. “I know I’m not the only employer who has faced this situation.  As much as I’d love to respond further, I, for one, will continue to abide by the terms of the agreement and, therefore, I cannot say anything else.”

Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era

Changing the rules

Lawmakers are expected to prohibit confidential agreements as part of bipartisan legislation that would make sweeping revisions to congressional workplace harassment policies for the first time in over two decades. They plan to unveil the bill as early as this week.

In the absence of concrete information from Congress, the most specific details of past settlements have come from a handful of former staff members like Standiford, who have said they would not have signed their nondisclosure agreements if they felt they had a choice.

They include Marion Brown, whose allegations that former Rep. John Conyers Jr. asked her to “satisfy him sexually” hastened the Michigan Democrat’s forced resignation in November, and Winsome Packer — a former congressional employee of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — who leveled complaints against Rep. Alcee L. Hastings.

Packer’s $220,000 settlement was by far the largest involving Congress to be revealed so far.  She claimed the Florida Democrat sexually harassed her while he was chairman of the so-called Helsinki Commission. Her settlement  was first reported in Roll Call.

Hastings has denied the allegations.

Brown and her lawyer, Lisa Bloom, said she had planned to honor her agreement until the documents were leaked to Buzzfeed in November. Conyers and his lawyer responded by “bashing” Brown in the media, Bloom said.

Bloom said when she appealed to House leaders to release Brown from the agreement, several members and staffers said they wouldn’t know how — even if they wanted to.

Even so, Bloom said she felt obligated to inform Brown that she could be sued if she spoke out. Brown decided it was worth the risk.

“It felt very scary, but I felt like this was something I had to do,” Brown said. “I knew it was wrong, what happened to me. I didn’t feel I could live with this, if I let this man get away with this and call me a liar.”

Laura Cech of the Office of Compliance, which deals with the complaint process in Congress, would not detail how specific breaches of nondisclosure agreements are handled, citing confidentiality restrictions.

Congressional records indicate officials can’t do much.

The OOC board’s directors determined in two decisions that it has no authority under the Congressional Accountability Act to enforce nondisclosure clauses in settlements. The 1995 Act created the OOC and outlined the congressional dispute and resolution process for harassment complaints.

“There is no statutory provision within the CAA which addresses the authority of a Hearing Officer or the Board to address independent breaches of confidentiality,” a synopsis in the Congressional Record states.

Cech said in a statement that the OOC “encourages the parties to include dispute resolution procedures in their agreements and to use these procedures should there be a breach.”

In the absence of such provisions, she said, the office would “provide assistance” if an alleged breach is reported to the executive director within 60 days. 

The settlement agreements that have been publicly released so far, however, make no reference to any ambiguity surrounding nondisclosure provisions or their enforcement.

Such was the case with Standiford.

“The terminology used in the settlement agreement looks very scary in terms of ‘injunctive relief,’ and ‘breaches of confidentiality,’” said Kevin Mulshine, a former inspector general for the Architect of the Capitol and onetime senior adviser and counsel to the OOC.

Mulshine reviewed Standiford’s settlement at Roll Call’s request. He also alerted Roll Call to the transcript of the 2016 Notice of Adopted Rulemaking regarding confidentiality breaches.

“The only vehicle through which there could be any kind of remedy for the employing office for a breach of confidentiality would be the OOC,” he said.  “And the OOC has made it very clear that it doesn’t have the authority to police breaches of confidentially.”

Former Congresswomen Reflect on Sexual Harassment Issues

A lopsided process

Standiford said he came to a similar conclusion when he reread his settlement documents. So when a reporter from The (Portland) Oregonian called recently to confirm a tip, he had no qualms about telling the truth. His only regret, he said, was that he didn’t come forward sooner.

“Those agreements really rely on the fact that there is a power dynamic at play,” he said.

Standiford was not as confident when he filed the complaint, he said. At the time, he had no idea how the process worked. He had no resources to hire a lawyer. Instead, he brought his mother to mediation sessions, where the two of them sat across the table from a representative from Walden’s office and a congressional legal team.

Standiford said he had no “ax to grind,” against Walden, but wanted to come forward because the process felt unjust.

“I was dealing with a politician, his staff, and staff attorneys, and they weren’t looking out for me,” he said. “And it’s for damn sure they aren’t looking out for any of these women. To me, that is wrong. And to hold it all in secret, and to not allow these victims to disclose or discuss it, it doesn’t feel right.”

Standiford worked as a sheriff’s deputy before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he joined the Army. His career there was cut short when he was injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

After his discharge, he worked part time in Walden’s district office as a fellow with the Wounded Warrior Project. The two-year program is meant to give veterans job opportunities in the House of Representatives, and it works to place fellows in full-time jobs.  

Standiford was offered full-time status and a $48,000 annual salary in 2012, according to the statement accompanying his original OOC complaint. He had just started the new position when he had to miss two weeks of work for unexplained chest pains. He described himself as a “disabled veteran” in his complaint and said the time off was related to “chronic pain” and emerging respiratory problems.

He gave his supervisor in Walden’s office a letter from his Veterans Affairs doctor stating that he would be able to return to his full hours. It didn’t matter, the statement said. His hours were cut in half.

The settlement was reached on the last day of a lengthy period of counseling, mediation and administrative hearings required of all congressional employees who pursue such complaints.

Standiford’s agreement stated that he would receive his last paycheck from Walden’s office. He would then remain on the payroll, receiving the equivalent of his full-time pay as “paid leave” in three monthly installments.

It is unclear whether the settlement money was paid from a fund set aside at the U.S. Treasury Department for such payments or out of Walden’s office account.

Standiford now works part time as a school bus driver and has started a business teaching the homeless survival skills.

 

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