Rep. Raul M. Grijalva quietly arranged a “severance package” in 2015 for one of his top staffers who threatened a lawsuit claiming the Democrat was frequently drunk and created a hostile workplace environment, revealing yet another way that lawmakers can use taxpayer dollars to hide their misbehavior on Capitol Hill.
While the Office of Compliance has been the focus of outrage on Capitol Hill for hush-money payouts in sexual harassment cases, the Grijalva payout points to another office that lawmakers can use to sweep accusations under the rug with taxpayer-funded settlements negotiated by the House Employment Counsel, which acts as the attorney for all House offices.
The employment counsel negotiated a deal for taxpayers to give $48,395 — five additional months’ salary — to the female aide, who left her job after three months. She didn’t pursue the hostile workplace complaint further.
The arrangement appears to run contrary to House rules that constrain severance packages, and it caught the eye of watchdogs who were already demanding answers about payouts in the wake of harassment complaints.
“It seems like all of these House bodies are designed to help cover for members of Congress,” said Melanie Sloan, an ethics lawyer in Washington. “A large part of the problem is that each member of Congress can treat their staff as their own fiefdom and also know that it will remain silent.”
In the case of Mr. Grijalva, the senior employee left after three months on the job. Her position was filled immediately by another worker, and her email and cellphone were deactivated.
When the woman hired a lawyer and threatened a lawsuit, Mr. Grijalva halted her salary as part of the House Employment Counsel’s strategy to force her to settle the matter, according to Capitol Hill sources.
The agreement provided for her pay to resume at her full salary for five months after she left the office.
Mr. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, told The Washington Times that the pay was a severance package and that the agreement was reached without a complaint lodged with the Office of Compliance, which handles workplace grievances by congressional employees.
“On the advice of House Employment Counsel, I provided a severance package to a former employee who resigned. The severance did not involve the Office of Compliance and at no time was any allegation of sexual harassment made, and no sexual harassment occurred,” Mr. Grijalva said in an email to The Washington Times.
“Under the terms of the agreement, had there been an allegation of sexual harassment, the employee would have been free to report it. Regrettably, for me to provide any further details on this matter would violate the agreement,” he said.
Mr. Grijalva did not respond to repeated inquiries about why he agreed to a more than $48,000 severance package for an employee on the job for just three months.
The woman, whose name is being withheld by The Times, declined to comment for this article.
The payoff in the Grijalva case appeared to violate House rules that prohibit a Congress member from retaining “an employee who does not perform duties for the offices of the employing authority commensurate with the compensation such employee receives.”
A legitimate severance package also should be paid in a lump sum and reported separately, according to House rules.
The role of the House Employment Counsel in squelching workplace complaints emerged amid flurry of sexual harassment accusations and shock that Congress has covered it up for years.
Most of the focus has been on Congress’ Office of Compliance, which over the past 20 years paid out $17.2 million to settle 264 complaints of sexual harassment and other workplace violations on Capitol Hill, The Washington Post reported this month.
In the absence of a human resources department for Congress, the Office of Compliance handles sexual harassment and other workplace grievances. The settlements are secret, and the complaint process is arduous and can drag out for months with mandatory counseling for victims and other requirements.
Victims also are required to sign a confidentiality agreement before the matter can be resolved.
That appears to have happened in the Grijalva case with the Employment Counsel as well.
Peter Flaherty, president of the watchdog organization National Legal and Policy Center, said the secrecy of the congressional offices makes it difficult to figure out how widespread the problems are.
“Sexual harassment settlements are sometimes disguised as other transactions, like severance payments. These are very hard to unravel,” he said. “These settlements were made with public funds. Since we taxpayers were parties to these agreements, we have the right to know who on whose behalf we settled.”
Mr. Flaherty said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, should make public all the names of all the lawmakers accused of sexual harassment and the amounts of settlements paid in each case, while preserving the anonymity of the victims.
Rep. Brian K. Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican, called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate every use of taxpayer dollars to settle harassment claims in Congress.
“It’s unbelievable — and unacceptable — that elected officials have been using taxpayer dollars to cover up sexual harassment suits for years,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “As if the American people needed another example of politicians playing by a different set of rules, this is an affront to the hardworking taxpayers forced to foot the bill for these heinous actions.”
His office said the demand for investigation applied to the House Employment Counsel, the Office of Compliance and any other method of settling claims.
The complaints against members of Congress are piling up.
Ms. Sloan, the ethics lawyer, said she was victimized in 1998 while working for Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat. She said she was verbally abused and one occasion was called into the congressman’s office, where she found him in his underwear.
Her complaints at the time were largely ignored, and Mr. Conyers’ office said she was “mentally unstable.”
Ms. Sloan is among three women who have come forward with complaints of inappropriate behavior by Mr. Conyers.
One female staffer was paid $27,000 in 2015 as part of a confidentiality agreement after she accused Mr. Conyers of firing her when she refused to have sex with him, BuzzFeed reported.
The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into the sexual harassment accusation against Mr. Conyers, who denied wrongdoing but stepped down from his position as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Al Franken also faces a possible ethics investigation after radio newscaster Leeann Tweeden accused him of forcibly kissing her and groping her during a USO tour in 2006, before the Minnesota Democrat was elected in 2008.
Another woman came forward to accuse the senator of grabbing her buttocks while they were at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.
Mr. Franken has made several apologies.
“I know that I’ve let a lot of people down,” he said Monday when returning to work in the Senate.
It’s part of a flood of sexual harassment accusations against powerful men that began with women speaking out about movie producer Harvey Weinstein and spread through Hollywood to journalism and Capitol Hill.
The Senate voted this month to institute mandatory training to combat sexual harassment, and Mr. Ryan ordered all House members and staff to receive training.
At the time, Mr. Grijalva applauded the move and called for more action.