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National Govt & Politics
Lawmakers press for more publicity on harassment settlements
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Lawmakers press for more publicity on harassment settlements

Lawmakers press for more publicity on harassment settlements
Photo Credit: Jamie Dupree

Lawmakers press for more publicity on harassment settlements

The head of the Capitol Hill office which deals with workplace harassment cases said Wednesday that she still does not have the power to reveal the names of lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to pay legal harassment settlements, drawing sharp rebukes from members of both parties on a House spending panel, as lawmakers in both the House and Senate expressed growing frustration about the matter.

"The transparency issue is revolting," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). "It is absolutely unacceptable that we continue to let members who abuse their employees hide."

At a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee, Susan Grundmann, the head of the Congressional Office of Compliance, said that workplace settlements which involve lawmakers, often include non-disclosure agreements, precluding any publicity.

"Most settlement agreements - in fact all that I have seen - contain non-disclosure clauses in them," said Grundmann. "Those are not by our doing."

Pressed sharply by both parties at a hearing where she asked for a nine percent budget increase to help deal with harassment training and case reviews, Grundmann made clear there was no plan to reveal the names of members who had engaged in such settlements in the past.

"No, I think we are prohibited from under the law - in terms of the strict confidentiality that adheres to each one of our processes, and the non-disclosure agreements, we cannot disclose who they are," Grundmann added.

Grundmann said new reporting standards approved by the House would reveal every six months which offices had some type of legal settlements - and she also said that if a lawmaker agreed to a workplace settlement, taxpayers would pay the bill up front - and then have that member of Congress reimburse Uncle Sam within 90 days.

So far, the House and Senate have not finalized an agreement on legislation to set new standards for transparency on workplace settlements involving lawmaker offices, as one leading Democrat today again demanded action by both chambers.

"The Senate has no more excuses," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Back in Wednesday's House hearing, lawmakers did not like to hear that while reforms in the House would publicly name the lawmaker and/or a top staffer if they were involved in harassment of other staffers, a Senate reform plan would not be as sweeping.

"So, if a Chief of Staff engages in that conduct, or anyone else that isn't the member, then their conduct is not disclosed?" Wasserman Schultz asked.

"That's correct," replied Grundmann.

"That's absolutely unacceptable," the Florida Democrat said.

The hearing came days after the resignation of Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who had taxpayers foot the bill for an $84,000 settlement with a former office employee - Farenthold had promised to pay that money, but now that he is gone, it seems unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile, Grundmann denied press reports in recent weeks that any personal information about sexual harassment or workplace abuses in Congressional offices was left on unsecured computer servers.

"We have not been hacked. We have never stored our data on an unsecured server," as Grundmann said their computer precautions had been described by officials as "Fort Knox."

"Fort Knox doesn't talk about their cyber security," she added, offering to brief members in private about the issue

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