Politics

A Huge Congressional Settlement Involving Sexual Harassment — And Hardly Anyone Knew

Lawmakers on Helsinki Commission blindsided by report of $220K payout

Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings has denied allegations of sexual misconduct that led to a $220,000 payment to a former congressional staffer. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The $220,000 paid to former staffer Winsome Packer in 2014 is by far the largest known settlement involving Congress and accusations of sexual harassment in recent years.

But few, if any, of the lawmakers who served on the congressional commission where Packer worked seem to have been informed about it until the sum was reported by Roll Call on Friday.  

The settlement, paid by taxpayers through the Treasury Department, capped four years of negotiations, internal complaints, investigations and court proceedings in Packer’s case.

She alleged in court and in congressional complaints that her boss, Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, subjected her to two years of unwanted sexual advances while she was working in Vienna for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission — and threatened her job when she resisted.

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

Seven of the 18 lawmakers on the panel at the time — including Hastings — said they didn’t learn of the payment until they saw the Roll Call story. 

“This case underscores the need for greater transparency and an end to taxpayer bailouts for sexual harassment,” said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who still serves on the commission.

It was unclear who approved the payment.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who chaired the commission when the agreement was reached, said Tuesday he could not answer questions about it, including whether he knew about it.  

“I want to respect the rights of the process,” the Maryland Democrat said.

He referred all questions to House and Senate employment offices. Officials at those offices did not return requests for comment.

Hastings, who is still on the commission, called Packer’s allegations, “ludicrous,” on Friday and said he was outraged by the settlement.

A defective process

The secrecy surrounding the payment to Packer underscores what some lawmakers have said is a major flaw in the way Congress handles its employees’ reports of mistreatment.

Critics say that process is designed to protect lawmakers, rather than taxpayers or employees, by closely guarding details of settlements and forcing victims to sign agreements that prohibit them from talking about their ordeal.

Packer’s case spanned three changes of leadership at the commission, a body whose duties include the promotion of international human rights. Hastings was the chairman when she filed her first complaint with the congressional Office of Compliance in 2010.

She sued Hastings and the commission in federal court in 2011, but Hastings was dropped as defendants in 2012, after they argued that the federal statute she cited in her case did not apply to members of Congress.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith took over leadership of the Helsinki Commission in 2011, while Packer was embroiled in a dispute with congressional lawyers over whether panel employees were protected from discrimination under the Congressional Accountability Act, the law that applies to congressional employees, she said.

Packer recalled the New Jersey Republican as one of her only defenders.

“He said he would not tolerate in any sense sexual harassment of staff, and and you should feel at liberty to pursue justice,” she said. 

A spokeswoman for Smith said he was informed of the settlement after the fact but details remained unclear. 

“I have zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” Smith said.  “During my chairmanship, I worked to ensure that a woman’s claim of sexual harassment against another member of Congress was taken seriously, her voice heard, and that in the pursuit of justice all relevant facts impartially considered.”

Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, also a commissioner at the time, said he “couldn’t imagine” how the settlement could have been approved without the signoff of the whole commission. “I knew nothing,” said Chambliss, who served as a Republican from Georgia until 2015.

“I expect both houses will address the issue in hopefully a very forceful way,” he said. “What they’ll do, I have no idea, but this sort of thing being held in the shadows is very concerning.”

The other current and former commissioners who said they were not informed were Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman and New York Democratic Rep. Louise M. Slaughter.

Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen declined to comment because he now serves on the House Ethics Committee. The other commissioners when the settlement was paid did not return requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall said the New Mexico Democrat is “extremely concerned about the instances of sexual harassment in Congress” and supports legislation that would bring more transparency to the settlement process.

The more things change …

Lawmakers, prompted by an intense national focus on sexual harassment in American institutions, are attempting to revise the law that outlines the reporting and resolution process for congressional employees. Leaders of that effort have said there is a consensus that future policies should prohibit nondisclosure agreements and require lawmakers to be liable for settlements in complaints against them.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, who has been leading the effort to overhaul the process in the House, said she spoke to Packer about her experience in the last week.

“This case is an example of why we need to get all these cases out in the open, so people understand who was involved, how much taxpayer money was involved, what was the process the victim had to go through, and how much investigation there was or review of the matter,” the Virginia Republican said. “Learning all of that will help us going forward in reforming the process and making sure we have a process that treats victims fairly and presents them with a level playing field.”

But lawmakers seeking to determine the extent of the problem have so far been unable to unearth basic details of recent settlements, including the names of current lawmakers who have been named in complaints and the total amount that taxpayers have paid to settle such cases.

To date, the Office of Compliance, the agency that handles congressional employment disputes, has released only settlement figures from the House, not the Senate. It has received requests for more detailed information from both chambers.

That breakdown of payments from the last five years included only one payment to resolve a sexual harassment complaint, later revealed to be $84,000 paid to a former staffer of Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold. It is unclear why Packer’s settlement was not included.

“The OOC cannot comment on whether matters have or have not been filed with the office,” spokeswoman Laura Cech said.

Packer was considered a congressional employee under the charter that established the Helsinki Commission.

Recent reports have indicated that lawmakers can bypass official congressional offices to resolve disputes. Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. resigned last week after revelations that he had paid a staff member who had accused him of harassment $27,000 out of his office account.

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