Congress must do right by vic­tims of harassment

New al­le­ga­tions should be rig­or­ously in­ves­ti­gated — and past mis­deeds dis­closed.

The Washington Post - - POWER POST -

The post-Har­vey We­in­stein mo­ment swept into Congress this month when Leeann Twee­den ac­cused Sen. Al Franken (DMinn.) of grop­ing and kiss­ing her with­out her con­sent in 2006. Three more women have since come for­ward, two anony­mously, to say that Mr. Franken touched them in­ap­pro­pri­ately dur­ing photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. Mean­while, Rep. John Cony­ers Jr. (Mich.) stepped down from his post as rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee fol­low­ing news of two sex­ual harassment com­plaints filed against him, one in fed­eral court and one set­tled within Congress.

The set­tle­ment reached by Mr. Cony­ers through Congress’s Of­fice of Com­pli­ance is a case in point for why the process of re­port­ing sex­ual harassment within the leg­is­la­ture must be re­formed. In 2014, the vic­tim com­plained that Mr. Cony­ers had dis­missed her as an aide af­ter she re­fused his ad­vances, in­clud­ing un­wanted touch­ing and re­quests for sex­ual fa­vors. She re­ceived a set­tle­ment of more than $27,000 in tax­payer money in ex­change for agree­ing to re­main silent about her al­leged mis­treat­ment. Both Demo­cratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) say they knew noth­ing about the case — likely a re­sult of the manda­tory se­crecy with which Congress re­solves com­plaints.

Leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.) would make re­port­ing harassment eas­ier by speed­ing up the process and pro­vid­ing vic­tims with greater re­sources. It would also re­quire Congress to make pub­lic how much each of­fice has paid out in set­tle­ments. If a set­tle­ment were reached against a law­maker, that mem­ber of Congress would have to pay out of his or her own pocket in­stead of re­ly­ing on tax­payer fund­ing from the Of­fice of Com­pli­ance.

Those would be im­por­tant im­prove­ments. But Congress must shine a light on past mis­deeds as well. Al­though the Of­fice of Com­pli­ance has now re­leased to­tal fig­ures for all set­tle­ments paid out in the leg­isla­tive branch from 1997 on­ward, the data are vague: There’s no in­for­ma­tion as to how many cases were re­solved, which of­fices were in­volved and how much of the $17 mil­lion to­tal in set­tle­ments con­cerned sex­ual harassment com­plaints. What’s more, the tally doesn’t in­clude set­tle­ments such as that reached by Mr. Cony­ers, whose of­fice fur­ther ob­scured the com­plaint by pay­ing the vic­tim di­rectly as a “tem­po­rary em­ployee.” Law­mak­ers should make pub­lic as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about th­ese set­tle­ments while re­spect­ing vic­tims’ pri­vacy. Amer­i­cans have a right to know how their money was spent.

Th­ese same prin­ci­ples of open­ness and trans­parency re­quire rig­or­ous con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions of both Mr. Franken and Mr. Cony­ers. The House Ethics Com­mit­tee has be­gun look­ing into Mr. Cony­ers’s be­hav­ior, while Se­nate lead­er­ship has voiced sup­port for a sim­i­lar probe into Mr. Franken’s. It’s right to in­sist on due process be­fore de­cid­ing what should come next. But that process must be se­ri­ous — nei­ther a means by which Democrats can bury an un­com­fort­able truth nor an ex­cuse for Repub­li­cans to score po­lit­i­cal points. Both House and Se­nate com­mit­tees must un­der­stand their duty to move ag­gres­sively, fairly and ex­pe­di­tiously.

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