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Lawmakers have carte blanche to cut secret harassment settlements

The revelation that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) secretly settled a sexual harassment claim using his office funds obscured a disturbing fact: The House appears to have no clear rules on whether Conyers’ colleagues can do the same thing.

Conyers in 2015 made a roughly $ 27,000 severance payment to a former aide who accused him of harassment using his taxpayer-funded office account. But even though the House ethics manual says that employees should be paid for having “regularly performed official duties” — in other words, showing up and doing work, a guideline that the severance payment to Conyers’ former aide didn’t meet — the settlement deal was still allowed to go forward.

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Now Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a vocal advocate for reform of Capitol Hill’s secretive system for handling workplace harassment, is calling out the lack of policing of the secret one-off settlements. She wants the House ethics committee to state definitively whether the chamber will allow more Conyers-style settlements.

The ethics panel “currently has no clear position on whether these payments are indeed impermissible,” Speier told the committee’s leaders in a Thursday letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.

Allowing lawmakers use their office’s budgets “to avoid public disclosure of wrongdoing only serves to enable the evasion of accountability,” Speier wrote, adding that she knows of one member who used the Conyers-style maneuver to settle a misconduct case earlier this year.

“The American people deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being used in this manner.”

The question of whether House members can settle harassment claims with their budgets — also known as members’ representational allowances, or MRAs — is at the heart of an ongoing ethics committee review of severance payments Rep. Mark Meadows (R-S.C.) made to a former chief of staff who was accused of sexual harassment by several female aides in the office.

One senior Democratic aide familiar with the issue said that before the Meadows probe, the ethics committee “was much clearer about the use of the MRA for this purpose.”

But the ethics panel’s “advice has been inconsistent and unhelpful” in the 15 months since, the aide added. “I don’t think that they expected this level of scrutiny around these particular settlements.”

Another Democratic aide sounded a similar note: “The lack of standardized guidance on this is problematic.”

Conyers himself is also the subject of another ethics panel review on the severance question stemming from his payments to a former chief of staff after she left his office following a guilty plea to a misdemeanor.

The House Administration Committee is holding a hearing Thursday on workplace misconduct settlements in Congress. Some of those are paid using a taxpayer-funded account maintained by the congressional Office of Compliance, while others come out of members’ budgets. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) settled a hostile work environment claim unrelated to sexual harassment in 2015 using operating funds from the House Natural Resources Committee, on which he is the top Democrat.

If the compliance office’s fund is used to pay a harassment claim, the administration panel’s GOP chairman and top Democrat have to sign off on it.

But the top Democrat on that committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady, said Thursday that no such approval requirement exists for harassment settlements paid from lawmakers’ office budgets. If that happened, Brady said in an interview, “we’d probably never know about it.”

Former Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chaired the administration panel from 2012 until 2016, said in an interview that “I don’t remember” being involved in any talks about resolving misconduct claims using lawmakers’ office budgets.

“I’m astonished to see that a member would use the MRA to pay off a sexual harassment case,” Miller said in an interview. “I don’t believe that’s why the money was appropriated.”

Grijalva said he worked with the House employment counsel’s office, which represents the interests of members in misconduct disputes, on the settlement agreement with his former aide. That employee reportedly cited Grijalva’s alleged alcohol use as creating a hostile work environment, charges that he denies.

Matt Lauer is pictured. | Getty Images

“In this instance I felt that I was taking advice from House counsel, and that that advice was the best advice I could get,” Grijalva said in an interview. “And I relied on it.”

Speier, in an interview, slammed the employment counsel’s office as “biased and member-centered and victim-blaming. That whole function needs to change dramatically.”

The employment counsel’s office referred questions on the issue to the administration committee. The ethics committee declined to comment for this story.

That committee’s handbook for members allows lump sum payments to House employees, but specifies that recipients of the payments must “perform official duties commensurate with the compensation received” in compliance with chamber rules.

The chamber’s ethics manual uses similar phrasing, stating: “The underlying standard for the receipt of compensation by an employee of the House is that the employee has regularly performed official duties commensurate with the compensation received.”

Rep. Tom Cole is pictured. | AP

A spokeswoman for the administration committee, asked if the panel has ever taken a closer look at the propriety of using office budgets to pay harassment settlements, said that any “misuse of official resources” would fall under the ethics panel’s purview. But the broader issue of settlements is part of the committee’s ongoing review of congressional workplace culture, the spokeswoman said.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), an administration committee member working with Speier on broader harassment reforms, said that lawmakers are trying to make their own internal misconduct system more transparent. But they want to avoid getting embroiled in specific “ongoing disputes with members and candidates, because then everybody kind of goes to their corners and you lose that watershed moment.”

Brady predicted that part of the House’s internal house cleaning on harassment would involve coming up with clearer guidance on the method Conyers and Grijalva used to secretly settle their claims. The administration committee is looking at adding language to its handbook and other guidance clarifying the issue, Brady said.

And asked why the ethics committee has not issued formal guidance, he quipped: “I think they’re going to now.”

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