The current climate surrounding sexual harassment has ensnared even high-ranking lawmakers, some of whom have turned to taxpayer funding to settle harassment or assault disputes. On Tuesday, a new report revealed that how much Congress has paid to settle sexual harassment complaints in recent years is nearly double what earlier reports had suggested. Although the full details have yet to emerge, it's now clear that Congress has spent more than $300,000 to settle sexual harassment claims in the past 10 years.
NBC News reported that, in a closed-door meeting of Republican lawmakers Tuesday, Mississippi Representative Gregg Harper shared these latest details with his colleagues. The information, reportedly provided to Harper by the Office of Compliance, indicates that Congress used taxpayer dollars to pay $115,000 to settle three sexual harassment complaints regarding House members from 2008 to 2012. That money is in addition to the previously disclosed claim of $84,000 in settlements given in 2014, to settle claims against Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold. In total, some 15 settlements were paid between 2008 and 2012 — adding up to at least $342,225.
The number of sexual harassment claims directed at members of Congress — and how much those members have paid to settle those claims — largely remains a mystery. The OOC, the office tasked with handling those claims, has been called out before for the process by which victims must report harassment on Capitol Hill. But increasingly, the OOC is being criticized for a lack of transparency when it comes to releasing more information about the number of harassment claims and how those claims have been handled.
On Monday, reports indicated that the OOC refused a request from Sen. Tim Kaine (a Virginia Democrat) to release information on the number of harassment claims filed and settled in Congress. The OOC says it already provided the Senate with a statistical breakdown of settlement amounts involving Senate offices from 1997 to 2017. Beyond that, the office says it can't release more specifics without breaking the law.
Lawmakers — including Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand— have introduced the "Me Too" Act (Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act) in an effort to protect employees who report sexual harassment. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, a co-sponsor of the bill, told Bustle in November, "If we’re going to take on sexual harassment and assault in workplaces across the country the halls of Congress can be no exception."
In November, it came to light that Democratic Rep. John Conyers — the longest-serving member of Congress — settled a 2015 complaint from a former staffer using money from his taxpayer-funded office budget. According to reports, that settlement was in the amount of $27,000.
Conyers ultimately resigned amid the news of the allegations, though he disputed him. The following month, sexual harassment allegations began surfacing regarding Rep Farenthold, claims that ultimately led the Texas Republican to announce he would not seek reelection but denies the claims.
Prior to the Conyers allegations, it was not widely known that taxpayers often footed the settlement bills for sexual harassment claims. And though the numbers are startling, they still don't provide the full picture. So far, the OOC has not released even broad settlement details regarding the Senate.
In a statement made via Twitter, Kaine said he was disappointed in the OOC's failure to provide details regarding Senate harassment claims, writing, "If we truly want to fix the broken system on the Hill, we need to understand the scope of the problem."