Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policy ‘toothless,’ ‘a joke’ (Politico)

Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policy ‘toothless,’ ‘a joke’

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Two female lawmakers and several congressional staffers are calling for an overhaul of Capitol Hill’s policies on sexual harassment, citing a culture of tolerance in a workplace long known as a boys’ club.

The sexual harassment scandals involving major Hollywood and media figures are focusing new attention on Congress’ procedures, which critics say are woefully inadequate for deterring bad behavior in an institution filled with powerful men and young aides trying to advance their careers. Each congressional office operates as its own small, tightly controlled fiefdom with its own rules and procedures, which makes it that much harder to come forward.

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Lawmakers and congressional aides are not required to undergo sexual harassment training — a shortcoming even the office that handles complaints says should be changed. And victims must submit to as long as three months of mandated “counseling” and “mediation,” as well as what one lawyer involved in such cases called a “cooling off period,” before filing a complaint against an alleged perpetrator.

That’s assuming they’re even aware of how to lodge a grievance.

One former staffer who said she was sexually harassed by a colleague years ago told POLITICO she didn’t know where to turn at the time. She’d never heard of the Office of Compliance, or OOC, the entity that exists to handle harassment complaints and enforce workplace protection laws for the legislative branch. When she called a congressional committee that deals with administrative issues to inquire about filing a complaint, she said, she was turned away without any guidance.

“I didn’t even know it existed as a resource,” the ex-staffer said of the compliance office. “You don’t have an HR Department on the Hill. There’s no one place that you go. Nobody on the Hill has any idea how you report and deal with sexual harassment.”

Some officials are trying to change that. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) next week will introduce legislation calling for an overhaul of the compliance office, which she said is “constructed to protect the institution — and to impede the victim from getting justice.” On Friday, she will release a video recounting her experience years ago as a congressional staffer, when the office’s chief of staff “held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she said.

“Many of us in Congress know what it’s like, because Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long,” Speier continued. “It’s time to throw back the curtain on the repulsive behavior that has thrived in the dark without consequences.”

In an interview Thursday, Speier called the OOC “toothless” and “a joke.” She said “it encumbers the victim in ways that are indefensible.”

“There’s no accountability whatsoever,” she said. “It’s rigged in favor of the institution and the members, and we can’t tolerate that.”

The call to overhaul the OOC comes as 40 percent of female congressional staffers say there’s a sexual harassment problem on Capitol Hill, according to a July survey conducted by Roll Call. The survey found that one in six female aides said they’d personally been sexually harassed in their offices, and only 10 percent were aware of structures that existed to report misconduct.

OOC Deputy Executive Director Paula Sumberg defended her office. “Any current staffer who has not heard of the Office of Compliance has somehow missed our emailed Annual Notification of Rights, our quarterly eNewsletters, and information about us on” the House intranet, Sumberg said in an email.

But even the OOC appears to acknowledge flaws in the system. In recent years, it has recommended that Congress make sexual harassment training mandatory. And the OOC recently urged Congress to raise its profile, noting that some training seminars for staffers don’t mention the office as a resource for workplace disputes.

Multiple staffers, including some who’ve worked on Capitol Hill for years, said there is a dearth of information about the OOC. So it’s not readily apparent where to turn when a colleague’s — or even a boss’ — actions become inappropriate.

That was the case for former staffers in former Rep. Tim Murphy’s office. Aides who called POLITICO to detail a hostile work environment — slammed doors, cursing, timed bathroom breaks and verbal abuse — said they were either unaware of the OOC or told it was pointless to complain. Others feared retaliation.

Even some lawmakers aren’t apparently aware of, or at least inclined to rely on, the OOC.

In 2014, a group of female staffers accused Kenny West, the chief of staff to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), of making inappropriate comments toward them. But Meadows turned to his friend, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), for help. Meadows asked Gowdy’s chief of staff, a woman, to interview his aides to determine whether West had acted inappropriately, according to an Office of Congressional Ethics report.

Gowdy’s staffer recommended Meadows fire the staffer, though Meadows kept him on payroll for months after that, the report said.

A similar situation played out in the office of Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) in 2010, after he was accused of making unwanted advances toward a junior male staffer. A more senior aide in the office brought the matter to Rep. Steny Hoyer’s office, which instructed the aide to report the matter to the Ethics Committee.

A House Administration Committee spokesman said Thursday that harassment on the Hill is “a serious issue” and that the panel is “currently evaluating what additional resources might be made available” to further help lawmakers and aides. She also argued that the Office of House Employment Counsel provides training, including sexual harassment awareness training, as does the Office of the House Chief Administrative Officer.

President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, painted a harsh picture of the reality facing women on Capitol Hill after a video emerged last year of Trump bragging about his sexual advances on women.

“I would talk to some of the members of Congress there when I was younger and prettier, them rubbing against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats who were uninvited, didn’t like it,” Conway told MSNBC in October 2016.

The comment was meant to defend Trump from lawmakers aghast by the “Access Hollywood” video. Conway’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on which members she was talking about.

Speier and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) are looking to pre-empt such situations with legislation that would mandate sexual harassment training for every congressional office. Executive branch employees must undergo such training, but it is optional for congressional workers.

Speier has introduced her bill every year since 2014, to no avail. One year, she came close to getting it passed when House appropriators agreed to tuck her bill into an appropriations measure — only to see it stripped from a Senate spending package.

Lawrence, who used to investigate harassment issues for the federal government, said she always checked whether training had been provided. “This is a first step, and I know this is one that can make a difference,” she said.

When Speier introduces her bill again this year, the legislation will go beyond sexual harassment training and seek to overhaul the lengthy process Hill victims must go through before filing a complaint.

As it stands now, after an incident but before filing a complaint, victims are required to go through 30 days of “counseling” with an OOC employee. Following that process, they have 15 days to decide whether they want to pursue the next step: 30 days of mandated “mediation.”

After mediation, victims must wait another 30 days to file a complaint. The OOC allows anyone filing a complaint to ask to shorten the counseling period and doesn’t require them to be in the same room as the accused during mediation, but Speier put little stock in those measures.

“Can you imagine a victim who’s been sexually harassed who attempts to file a complaint and then is told they’ve got to go through three months of biting their tongue and continuing to work in that kind of environment?” she asked. “You’ve just been sexually harassed and you’re told you have to be ‘counseled’ for 30 days. Are you kidding me?”

Les Alderman, an attorney who has represented multiple congressional employees in harassment and discrimination cases, said that OOC officials “do their best to do exactly what the law says they should.” But he warned that the law that created the office “has major downfalls.”

For one, Alderman said, the 30-day counseling period a harassment victim must undergo before pursuing a complaint is confidential.

Alexis Ronickher, an employment rights lawyer at Katz, Marshall & Banks who’s worked with sexual harassment victims in congressional offices, said that means victims can be sanctioned and their cases jeopardized if they say publicly that they’re filing a complaint against a lawmaker or fellow staffer.

“It’s the strap of silence in my opinion that helps foster a broken system. The fact that you can’t tell anyone that you filed a request for counseling or that you’re in mediation, that everything that goes on there has to be confidential,” she said. “It creates an environment in which people don’t talk about what’s happening and women who are being sexually harassed can’t come together and say, ‘I’m coming forward; you should come forward.’”

Ronickher said it’s not the Office of Compliance’s fault as much as the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which governs how the office operates and the rules governing complaints.

The GOP-controlled Congress created the OOC in 1995 amid the scandal involving then-Sen. Bob Packwood’s rampant sexual harassment. Ten women told The Washington Post about the Oregon Republican’s lewd behavior. The furor grew as Senate Republicans — including then-Ethics Committee chairman and now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — resisted holding hearings.

Former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan, then the ethics panel’s top Democrat, recalled a “drumbeat of complaints” that eventually forced committee Republicans to join his call to act against Packwood.

“This wasn’t just one woman … there was a pattern,” Bryan said in an interview.

OOC fielded 49 requests for counseling during fiscal 2016, according to its most recent annual report, including six in the House and two in the Senate. Of those requests, 15 dealt with harassment or a hostile work environment.

Despite the waiting periods, Sumberg said the OOC’s process for dispute resolution is faster than that of other federal agencies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which polices harassment cases for those agencies, can take as long as 180 days to act on a discrimination charge, according to its website.

“We probably have the fastest administrative process for bringing a sexual harassment complaint in the entire federal government,” Sumberg said by email.

Alderman, the attorney who works with harassment and discrimination victims, noted another key difference between the OOC’s process and the EEOC’s work in other federal agencies. After an accuser has successfully navigated the system and won a complaint, the EEOC requires the posting of information about the perpetrators of discriminatory behavior, so that “hopefully public notice and shame occurs.”

No such publicizing of a perpetrator’s past record is required in Congress. It’s a system, Alderman said, that “helps repeat offenders keep on repeating.”

POLITICO is taking a deeper look at Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policy. To share your stories confidentially with a reporter, please contact rbade@politico.com or eschor@politico.com. You can also anonymous share information with our reporting team using these tools.

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October 26, 2017 at 09:13PM