Sexual Harassment in the Federal Government: #MeToo Hits Congress

#metoo on pink background

The #MeToo movement has affected big names from Hollywood to Washington. Now, a string of allegations against Congressmen (and women) are raising questions about how sexual harassment in the federal government is handled, and who gets to know about it.

In this blog post, I will review allegations weighed against a number of U.S. Representatives and congressional candidates. I will explain how the Congressional Accountability Act and Title VII can be used to protect federal employees, including congressional staffers.

#MeToo Sexual Harassment Complaints Sweep Washington

Since the #MeToo movement went viral recently, allegations have been raised against actors and producers, news personalities, corporate executives and others. Now, a number of complaints have been raised against members of Congress and congressional candidates leaving some staffers wondering who will be next.

Senator Al Franken

Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, was the first sitting congressional figure to face sexual harassment allegations. At least 6 women claimed Franken groped them while posing for photos during his media career. On December 7, 2017, Franken announced he would resign from the Senate. However, by December 18, he was still appearing on the Senate floor, and several legislators who had called for his resignation appear to have had a change of heart.

Representative John Conyers

Representative John Conyers from Michigan, the longest-serving member of Congress, also faced allegations of sexual misconduct. An online news article described a confidential settlement of over $27,000 paid to a former staffer who claimed the congressman created a hostile work environment for women staffers. Marion Brown told USA Today that Conyers pressed her for sexual favors, particularly when his wife was out of town. Conyers resigned his seat on December 5, 2017, despite continuing to deny the allegations by Brown and at least six other women and witnesses.

Representative Blake Farenthold

Representative Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, also settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former aide. Lauren Green said Farenthold made sexually charged statements and engaged in off-color behavior. The settlement was paid through the Office of Compliance, which handles all congressional workplace concerns. However, Farenthold has since promised to repay the taxpayer funds used to cover the cost and announced he would not seek re-election at the end of his term.

Representative Ruben Kihuen

Representative Ruben Kihuen, a Democrat from Nevada, faces allegations by a young woman working on his 2016 campaign that he touched her thighs without consent twice. She quit the campaign rather than report the behavior. He apologized for his behavior amid calls that he resign.

Representative Trent Franks

Representative Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, resigned just hours after Sen. Franken. He too faced allegations of sexual harassment. This time two female staffers reported he pressured them to agree to act as surrogates and discussed fertility issues with them.

Congressional Candidate Roy Moore

Sexual harassment allegations also played a large role in the recent special election in Alabama. Republican senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of kissing and sexually assaulting a 14 year old girl when he was 32 years old. Three other women said Moore had pursued them while they were underage. Despite several members of his party recommending he withdraw from the election, Moore pressed on with the support of President Donald Trump. He lost to Democrat Doug Jones by a narrow margin.

The Congressional Accountability Act and Sexual Harassment in the Federal goverment

The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) ensures that federal government employees are covered by employment and workplace safety laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The CAA applies to over 30,000 legislative branch employees both in Washington and in state offices across the country. Under the CAA, those employees can raise complaints about sexual harassment in the federal government, among other worker protection laws.

The CAA created the Office of Compliance, an independent administration office that handles all congressional workplace complaints. The Office facilitates settlement of claims, provides workplace education and training programs, and investigates and enforces the laws described in the CAA within the halls of Congress.

Government workers must report civil rights violations within 180 days of the incident. Then the victims are required to go through 30 days of counseling and another 30 days of confidential mediation. If the matter is not resolved, the OCC may hold a hearing, or the employee can file a lawsuit in federal court.

When a federal legislative office commits a civil rights violation, including sexual harassment of staffers, the Office of Compliance is authorized to pay settlements out of the U.S. Treasury. Between 1997 and 2014, the office paid $15.2 million toward 235 awards and settlements addressed by the Office of Compliance. That means that when the victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress or other federal employees, the money comes from U.S. Taxpayers.

Changes to Sexual Harassment Claims in Washington

The House of Representatives recently voted on HB 4155, a bill that would amend the CAA to make the names of those accused of sexual harassment publicly accessible. Both houses have also approved bills to make sexual harassment and gender discrimination training mandatory.

Federal government employees face sexual harassment just like any other industry. But the CAA adds extra layers to the process to receive relief. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have sexual harassment attorneys ready to help you fight back against sexual harassment in the federal government. If you are a congressional staffer facing discrimination, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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