A House of Representatives fund paid $1 million to secretly settle complaints by staffers. Here are the largest.
The House has disclosed settling 41 complaints of workplace mistreatment for a total of some $1 million since 1997. The list published by the House does not include names, but The Daily Caller News Foundation used court documents to reveal the offices behind some settlements and then cross-referenced with news articles to rank them. The list also omits the largest settlement the settlement office ever handled, involving Rep. Alcee Hastings.
TheDCNF’s analysis found that a seldom-mentioned settlement involving the office of Rep. Gregory Meeks appears to be one of the largest settlements in decades while also involving some of the most serious allegations — including not just sexual harassment, but firing a staffer who said she was physically sexually assaulted by someone connected to a campaign donor.
The data is entirely based on Office of Compliance (OOC) payouts, and so omits some of the most notable settlements, such as one by Rep. John Conyers. The omission is because the Committee on House Administration disclosed only payments that came out of the OOC’s special settlement fund, whereas numerous members hid settlements in their office budgets. TheDCNF analysis of the list of OOC settlements found that much of the $1 million comes from a handful of large settlements, while others are for only a few thousand dollars.
1) $220,000: Alcee Hastings (D-FL), alleged sexual harassment, 2014
The Office of Compliance mysteriously omitted the largest settlement it ever handled from its list of settlements with member-led offices, likely because it involved a commission. The settlement, however, involved an accusation against Rep. Hastings by an employee of the Helsinki Commission, a member-led body of Congress chaired at the time by Hastings. The staffer alleged that he repeatedly invited her up to his hotel room when they were traveling, asked what type of underwear she was wearing, and made other inappropriate gestures. Hastings denied the charges and said he did not even know that Congress settled on his behalf. The size of the settlement seemingly suggests that authorities may have viewed the evidence as particularly damning or were highly motivated to make it go away. The amount is 88 times larger than another settlement for sex discrimination and retaliation and 25 times larger than the median settlement involving sex or gender. Hastings’ office did not return a request for comment.
2) $150,000: Benghazi Committee, alleged veteran status discrimination & retaliation, 2016
Benghazi Committee investigator Bradley Podliska filed a lawsuit alleging his bosses were unhappy the Air Force reservist had to leave to perform military service. He also said he had been unfairly pressured to focus on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He later withdrew that claim. Then-committee Chairman Trey Gowdy said in 2015 that Podliska was fired for mishandling classified info; Podliska said that was untrue and defamatory, Fox News reported. He was reinstated to his job after 16 months, and TheDCNF has learned the payment was calculated as back pay based on his salary.
3) $85,000: Eric Massa (D-NY), alleged sexual harassment & retaliation, 2010
Massa resigned after being accused of tickling and groping male staffers.
4) $84,000: Blake Farenthold (R-TX), alleged sexual harassment, 2014
A staffer alleged that Farenthold would talk about his “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about his spokeswoman. Farenthold denied some of the allegations, but acknowledged that he “allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional,” and that he had “angry outbursts” and didn’t always “treat people with the respect they deserved.” Farenthold has said he will reimburse taxpayers.
5) $65,000: John J. Duncan Jr. (R-TN), alleged age discrimination, 2011
Duncan’s office terminated Shirley Taylor on her 66th birthday after colleagues mocked her for her age and Duncan “expressed his displeasure” about another employee working into her 80s, according to a lawsuit. Bob Griffitts, the chief of staff, told Duncan that the staffer had Alzheimer’s disease, which was not true, it says. The chief of staff told Taylor she was forgetful, but when Taylor asked him for examples, Griffitts said he couldn’t remember any, according to the suit. Taylor alleged age discrimination, but Duncan said he’d leave the decision to his chief of staff, the lawsuit says. Duncan’s office did not return a request for comment.
6) $50,000: unknown office, alleged disability discrimination & retaliation, 2008-2012
This settlement remains a mystery. A staffer to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee sued her in 2011 for allegedly discriminating against her based on a disability during this time period (“I don’t give a damn about her disability,” she said, according to the lawsuit). However, that court case dragged on to 2015, and nothing indicates it was settled. Therefore, it does not appear to be this case. Jackson Lee has been called an abusive employer on Capitol Hill and had the highest turnover in her office, according to a 2013 analysis. Spokesman Mike McQuerry would not tell TheDCNF if she had ever settled with any employees.
7) $40,000: Gregory Meeks (D-NY), overtime & retaliation, 2006
The list does not name the member, but this is the only settlement fitting the description of the Meeks case in the relevant time period, and Meeks spokesman Jordan Morris did not deny that it is the same settlement.
Andrea Payne, a former Meeks staffer, filed a lawsuit “to recover for damages sustained by plaintiff when Representative Meeks violated her Constitutional rights by retaliating against her, and ultimately terminating her employment, because of her sexual assault lawsuit,” attorneys wrote. Payne underwent physical therapy at a medical office owned by the spouse of Joan Flowers, a Meeks donor and political operative who at one point served as treasurer of Meeks’ campaign. She said she was physically assaulted there, and she pursued criminal and civil charges.
Flowers “came to Representative Meeks’ office in an agitated state,” and Meeks said “when he received complaints from one of his campaign contributors he must treat the matter very seriously” and told Payne he was not going to pay her for overtime work she had performed, the lawsuit says. Meeks fired her and denied her unemployment insurance by saying she’d left voluntarily.
Meeks later said in a deposition that she was fired for writing a letter to the Federal Election Commission flagging improprieties in his campaign finances. But according to the lawsuit, that letter wasn’t written until after she was fired, and Meeks’ own wife contradicted his testimony on that point.
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