BuzzFeed reported last week that the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) paid $27,000 to settle a previously undisclosed sexual harassment claim against him. What is even more troubling is that the money was paid out of a secret fund that Congress has used for 20 years to pay off sexual harassment and other lawsuits against lawmakers. The House of Representatives secretly handles and conceals these lawsuits, and pays for them with our tax dollars.
The dirty little secret arrangement might never have been revealed, until Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told MSNBC earlier in November that the House had paid out millions of dollars over the last ten years. The money went to settle sexual harassment claims and other lawsuits.
$17 Million in Secret Settlements
In point of fact, the ludicrously named “Office of Compliance,” which operates something like a human resources department, released documents showing it had paid out $17 million since 1997 to settle a variety of workplace claims, including sexual harassment.
The details of those settlements, including their nature (sexual harassment, or what have you), are kept inexplicably confidential. Claimants are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to begin the lengthy mediation process.
Mr. Speier has now introduced legislation that would prohibit Congress from requiring non-disclosure agreements in such situations. The bill would require regular reporting of settlements.
Office of Congressional Compliance (Not)
“In 1995, Congress created the Office of Congressional Compliance to protect itself from being exposed, and it has been remarkably successful,” Rep. Speier said. “Twenty years later, 260 settlements and more than $15 million have permanently silenced victims of all types of workplace discrimination. Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it is backed up with enforcement and accountability.”
260 Settlements, $15 Million Unaccounted For
“It’s clear that our country is at an inflection point with respect to the behavior of powerful men across our society,” says Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that works for government transparency. “Congress itself is neither excluded nor sacrosanct from that reckoning, but continued secrecy will hinder public understanding of how our representatives conduct themselves in office. . .”
How Secretive is the House Process?
In most cases, lawsuit settlements can be found online after they go through the federal government via the Treasury Department’s Judgement Fund. The Fund has a searchable database online listing of previous payouts that are filterable by agency and date.
That fund shows the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has settled nearly 8,000 lawsuits between 2007 and 2016, according to records from the Judgement Fund database. Most of those were for medical malpractice (which, thanks to so-called “tort reform,” is now often not even a viable option for those who work outside of government). The VA has the second highest number of settlement payouts in the federal government, behind the Social Security Administration, which has about 13,000.
Congressional Lawsuits Hidden in Database
The House harassment payments described by Rep. Speier, however, do not appear in that huge database. Neither do they appear in the disbursement disclosures which the House is regularly required to file.
Because of the provisions of the Congressional Accountability Act (the nomenclature apparently an inside joke, as the Act clearly offers near zero accountability), settlement payments come from a special Treasury fund that the Office of Compliance draws from. The offices responsible for the payouts, and the reasons for the settlements, are kept strictly confidential. How is this possible in a Democracy – to use our tax dollars to pay off lawsuits against our congressional representatives? They seem to operate in this manner much like the politburo in Old Russia, with special privileges and financial resources not available to regular citizens. This also, by the way, gives the lie to the two party system. The two sides of the aisle worked to protect themselves, their one party of career politicians, in this caper.
In Rep. Conyers’ case, his office didn’t even go through that process, according to BuzzFeed, which obtained and poured through damning documents.
Buzzfeed wrote: [O]ne of Conyers’ former employees was offered a settlement, in exchange for her silence, that would be paid out of Conyers’ taxpayer-funded office budget. His office would “rehire” the woman as a “temporary employee” despite her being directed not to come into the office or do any actual work, according to the document. The complainant would receive a total payment of $27,111.75 over the three months, after which point she would be removed from the payroll, according to the document.
Because of the secret non-disclosure agreement and the use of regular office payroll to obscure the payout, there was practically no way for us voters to know we were paying for Rep. Conyers’ settlement.
Few words ring as hollow as “bipartisan” anymore. The word is so phony it can only be used ironically, or in rage. Here’s some “bipartisan” work for you. . . Former House Speaker John Boehner and current House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both issued statements which said they were unaware of the Conyers payments. How convenient that they can hide behind ignorance which their little “Office of Compliance” arrangement created for themselves. This little scam appears to be working just the way the representatives intended: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It works like Sgt. Schultz on the old Hogan’s Heroes comedy show – “I know nothing!”
Congress’ Secret Hush Fund for Sexual Harassment
Let’s hope Rep. Speier’s new legislation puts an end to this skulduggery with taxpayer money, and holds sexual harassers and others accountable for their actions, as regular Americans are held accountable for theirs. It is not only unseemly but unconscionable that sexual harassers and other transgressors are able to use government monies to pay off their accusers, abusing voters’ trust and leaving us in the dark about their crimes and misdemeanors.
Call your Representatives!
Call your Washington representatives and tell them you want the list released of the 260 settlements which rendered $17 million for victims of sexual harassment and other crimes or misdemeanors committed by representatives. Don’t let them hide behind the tiresome lie of “national security” on this one, or tell you they saved taxpayers money by avoiding a trial and paying some accuser. We have a right to know what we paid for. Any democrat or republican who can’t be found innocent in a sexual harassment trial or some other civil action has no right to represent us.
• Congress’ Secret Fund pays Sexual Harassment Claims