- On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that the longtime Michigan Rep. John Conyers settled a sexual-harassment complaint with a former staff member.
- The public deserves to know more about these kinds of settlements.
- And the settlements aren’t just unknown to the public: They’re unknown to members of congressional leadership, too.
In October 1991, then-freshman Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa took to the floor of the House of Representatives with a paper bag over his head.
Nussle was there to demand the release of the names of members of Congress who had been routinely overdrawing their accounts at the House Bank – and thus effectively taking unauthorized, interest-free loans from the federal government.
“It’s time to take the mask off this institution,” he declared.
Eventually, Nussle and a group of six other Republican freshmen (including then-Rep. John Boehner) got their way. The names of the congressional check kiters were released, leading to retirements, electoral defeats, and a handful of criminal convictions.
It’s time to unmask the institution again. Members of Congress should demand a public accounting of whose offices have used how much taxpayer money to pay for legal settlements.
Congress is misusing taxpayer money to cover up abuses
BuzzFeed News’ report about settlement payments arising from claims against Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is alarming in numerous ways.
Settlement documents obtained by BuzzFeed show that Conyers is alleged to have made repeated sexual advances on female employees, in one instance directing an employee to come to his hotel room and then instructing her to “touch it.”
BuzzFeed also reports that two staffers alleged that they were given the task of transporting, at taxpayer expense, women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs. (Conyers on Tuesday denied settling any sexual-harassment complaints with staff members.)
But there’s one aspect of BuzzFeed’s report that makes me concerned the tab for settlements in Congress is much larger than the $15.2 million in payments that have been reported from Congress’ designated settlement fund over approximately two decades. (These settlements are not just for sexual harassment; they can be for employment discrimination and other matters.)
In one instance, BuzzFeed reports that a former employee in Conyers’ office received a settlement paid out of the office’s regular budget. In exchange for signing a confidentiality agreement, the report said, she received three months’ pay, totaling just over $27,000, after she had already left the office.
Think about this. To anyone reviewing the office’s budget, this would look like a normal payroll expense. How much money is being secretly diverted from the regular business of congressional offices to pay settlements we don’t even know about, to cover up misbehavior that we would be interested to know about?
These payments aren’t just unknown to the public. They’re even unknown to congressional leadership. Representatives for Speaker Paul Ryan, former Speaker John Boehner, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all told BuzzFeed they knew nothing of the Conyers settlement, which makes a certain amount of sense, as it was paid out of his own office budget.
Tell us which members have been paying settlements
- Thomson Reuters
I understand there are non-ridiculous arguments for confidential settlements. Confidentiality may be preferred by victims in addition to the accused.
But in this instance, the public interest in disclosure is overriding.
We as taxpayers deserve to know how our money is being used, and we as voters deserve to know which elected officials are misbehaving egregiously at work. A culture that tolerates sexual harassment on Capitol Hill isn’t just bad for women who work there – it’s bad for members of the broader public, who have to live under laws written in a context that tolerates harassment.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, has brought forward legislation to bring transparency to the congressional settlement fund. But we also deserve disclosures from each individual office: Have you used regular operating funds to pay settlements, and in what amounts?
The diversion of staff budgets to pay settlements is a more serious matter than House Bank overdrafts – and the overdrafts were considered a serious enough matter by the public that they refused to reelect many members of the House in 1992.
We deserve to know about these settlements before we decide whom to elect in 2018.