Speier tack­les sex­ual ha­rass­ment on the Hill

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Sarah D. Wire

Af­ter Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Jackie Speier spoke out about be­ing forcibly kissed by a se­nior staff mem­ber when she worked on Capi­tol Hill in the 1970s, dozens of staffers called the law­maker to tell their sto­ries.

One woman told Speier she was grabbed by her gen­i­tals on the House floor. Some said law­mak­ers had other­wise in­ap­pro­pri­ately touched them or ex­posed them­selves.

Oth­ers said they had been ha­rassed by two sit­ting mem­bers of Congress. Speier (D-Hills­bor­ough) de­clined to iden­tify those mem­bers, say­ing only that one is a Repub­li­can and one is a Demo­crat.

“The cul­ture in this coun­try has been awak­ened to the fact that we have a se­ri­ous epi­demic in the work­place in all pro­fes­sions, in all walks of life, and it’s in­cum­bent upon those who are in au­thor­ity to ad­dress it and ad­dress it swiftly,” Speier told re­porters Tues­day af­ter tes­ti­fy­ing in front of the House com­mit­tee that is

con­sid­er­ing changes in how ha­rass­ment in Congress is in­ves­ti­gated. She said she couldn’t pro­vide more de­tails on the in­ci­dents be­cause the vic­tims had signed nondis­clo­sure agree­ments as part of set­tle­ments.

Her aim: to mod­ern­ize a sys­tem that she says dis­cour­ages vic­tims from com­ing for­ward.

The House is mov­ing quickly to ap­prove a res­o­lu­tion to re­quire sex­ual ha­rass­ment train­ing for all law­mak­ers and staff — some­thing com­mit­tee mem­bers stressed is a first step to deal­ing with Capi­tol Hill’s sex­ual ha­rass­ment prob­lem. The Se­nate passed a sim­i­lar res­o­lu­tion last week.

Speier and many oth­ers have said Congress must go fur­ther and also change its con­vo­luted sex­ual ha­rass­ment re­port­ing process.

In the weeks since the first sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions sur­faced in the news against Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein, a flood of vic­tims have come for­ward with al­le­ga­tions against prom­i­nent men in en­ter­tain­ment, me­dia and pol­i­tics.

At Tues­day’s hear­ing, other fe­male law­mak­ers shared sim­i­lar sto­ries from staffers. Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock (R-Va.) said a fe­male aide told her she de­liv­ered doc­u­ments to her boss’ home and was greeted by the male law­maker wear­ing just a towel. The law­maker, who Com­stock said is still serv­ing, then ex­posed him­self to the staffer, she said.

“What are we do­ing here for women right now who are deal­ing with some­body like that? It’s time to say, ‘No more,’ ” Com­stock said. “We need to know more ex­am­ples of what is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing and make it eas­ier for vic­tims to come for­ward.”

The sto­ries echoed dozens that have been de­tailed by women on Capi­tol Hill in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing re­ports from five cur­rent and for­mer Cal­i­for­nia con­gress­women, who told the As­so­ci­ated Press they were ha­rassed by fel­low law­mak­ers. The women didn’t name the col­leagues who they al­leged ha­rassed them, but said two are still serv­ing in the House.

For some­one who works on Capi­tol Hill to pur­sue a ha­rass­ment ad­min­is­tra­tive hear­ing or a law­suit against a law­maker or staff mem­ber, they must first go to coun­sel­ing through the lit­tle-known Of­fice of Com­pli­ance.

The coun­sel­ing, which can last up to 30 days, in­forms ac­cusers of their le­gal rights. The next step be­fore a hear­ing can be granted is a re­quired me­di­a­tion with the per­son they are ac­cus­ing. Dur­ing this process, the ac­cuser must sign a nondis­clo­sure agree­ment. The ac­cuser must pro­vide their own le­gal coun­sel. The per­son ac­cused is rep­re­sented by House lawyers.

“The present sys­tem may have been OK in the Dark Ages; it is not ap­pro­pri­ate for the 21st cen­tury,” Speier said, call­ing the process a “hell­hole ... to try to tra­verse.”

Speier plans to file bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion this week that would speed up the com­plaint process as well as re­quire more trans­parency about the ac­cused and about how much set­tle­ments cost tax­pay­ers. More than 1,500 cur­rent and for­mer Capi­tol Hill staffers have signed a let­ter ask­ing Congress to change the process.

Speier has pushed for such changes since 2014 but said re­newed pub­lic at­ten­tion has made a dif­fer­ence.

“It’s like most is­sues; there is a tip­ping point,” Speier said. “I think women have the courage now to come for­ward and give names and talk about some­thing that is, and has been, just stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure in busi­ness en­vi­ron­ments.”

Ni­cholas Kamm AFP/Getty Images

“THE CUL­TURE in this coun­try has been awak­ened to the fact that we have a se­ri­ous epi­demic,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hills­bor­ough) said af­ter tes­ti­fy­ing.

Chip So­mod­ev­illa Getty Images

REP. BRADLEY BYRNE (R-Ala.) joins Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat Jackie Speier on Tues­day be­fore tes­ti­fy­ing at a House hear­ing on sex­ual mis­con­duct pol­icy in Congress.

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