Politics

Want to Know Who Else Has Been Accused of Sexual Harassment in Congress? Good Luck

Congressional offices can’t release basic details of complaints — even to lawmakers

Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock says Congress must “fundamentally change” how sexual harassment complaints are handled. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The details of sexual harassment complaints against members of Congress and their staffs are secret and cannot be released to lawmakers seeking to determine the extent of the problem on Capitol Hill, a congressional official testified Thursday. 

“The law doesn’t allow us to release anything,” said Susan Tsui Grundmann, the executive director of the Office of Compliance, which oversees the response to sexual harassment complaints in Congress. She told a hearing of the House Administrative Committee that if lawmakers want to know more — including the number of complaints filed and the names of the accused — they will have to change the law. 

That response is the latest of a series of frustrations met by lawmakers who are scrambling to respond to a national focus on sexual harassment in some of America’s most powerful institutions, fueled in part by recent allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and President Donald Trump. The wave of claims that followed has felled high-ranking men in private industries, including the media.

In Congress, two senior lawmakers, Rep. John Conyers Jr. and Sen. Al Franken have been named by accusers and forced to announce their resignations in recent days — Franken said Thursday he would step down “in the coming weeks.”

But the overall response has been slower than in other industries, stymied in part by a system of reporting and responding to sexual harassment complaints that has not been revised since 1995. Thursday’s hearing was the second aimed at addressing shortcomings in that process. 

“This is a watershed moment and we need to take this opportunity to really fundamentally change how we address this in Congress” and beyond, Rep. Barbara Comstock said.

Watch: Hill Sexual Misconduct Could Muddy 2018 Wave Potential

The Virginia Republican said later the Administration Committee agrees on some revisions to current law and is working to release draft legislation, “as early as we can get it right.”

Areas of consensus include new protections for victims, such as having a counselor or an ombudsman who would advocate on their behalf throughout the process.

Lawmakers would also like to prohibit the use of taxpayer money to pay for sexual harassment settlements. Comstock said they are considering some prohibition on nondisclosure agreements that prohibit victims from speaking out about their experience.

Comstock added she would be in favor of changing the part of the law that prohibits the release of basic information about complaints and settlements. Such regulations have made it difficult to understand the extent of the problem, she and other lawmakers have said. 

Congressional offices have paid at least $359,450 for six claims in five years, $84,000 of which was for a sexual harassment claim against Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, according to data released last week by the House Administration Committee and media reports. That data, from the OOC, does not include settlements paid out of members’ own office budgets. 

In a follow-up request, the House Ethics Committee, which also has jurisdiction over harassment complaints, asked the OOC for all its records on complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or other prohibited actions by sitting members of Congress or their staffs. That request was denied in a letter the panel’s chairwoman, Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks, received Thursday morning.

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