A case study on Congress’s largest sexual harassment payout claims to shed some light on a process as convoluted as it is shrouded in secrecy.
Since the beginning of the 2017, numerous public figures have found themselves being accused of misconduct. Nearly all of them were male, high-powered, and occasionally claiming celebrity status.
Bill O’Reilly, the highest-grossing host on cable television, was ousted from Fox after details of his rampant sexism went viral. And in October, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein suddenly found his years’ of exploitation cast into the public eye.
Throughout the year, entertainers, companies, and businessmen have been made to answer for their workplace discrepancies. And now, too, Congressmen are being held accountable for their misdeeds.
Only last week, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, of Texas, promised to resign after some details of a confidential settlement with a former communications director were leaked. And before him, high-ranking Democrat John Conyers (MI) was found to have paid out multiple suits over his incredibly lengthy tenure as a Midwestern representative.
Yet the largest settlement, says NBC, is the same one which shows how opaque Congress’s process of dealing with sexually inappropriate politicians really is.
In 2011, congressional staffer Winsome Packer was working with the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Soon thereafter, she filed a complaint against the body, alleging that Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings had subjected her to numerous unwelcome advances. Publicly-available court documents say Packer “was forced to endure” repeated “unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwelcome touching” by the representative.
According to Packer, Rep. Hastings forced her into intimate hugs, pressing the length of his body against the course of hers – sometimes in front of witnesses and at public gatherings.
But complaining did nothing for Packer, who was threatened with “termination” by Hastings and the commission director.
Years of escalating the complaint to various offices and courts yielded little. The
Office of Congressional Ethics dismissed Packer’s allegation, while admitting that Hastings had made “unprofessional comments.” Editor’s note: It was not the House Office of Congressional Ethics that handled this matter. They referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee, an entirely different body, which handled – and dismissed – the matter.
And a federal court judge dismissed the case “with prejudice” in 2014.
But somehow, Packer managed to obtain $220,000 in taxpayer-funded settlements.
At the onset of her complaint, Packer was shot down the funnel of congressional bureaucracy.
She was forced to undergo a 30-day counseling session before going forward. After finishing that requirement, she began another 30 days of mediation, in which her attorney squared off with Hastings’ and the House’s. George Chuzi, who represented Packer, said the House’s attorneys were “unbelievably aggressive,” calling his client a “liar” and “extortionist.”
Despite Packer’s desire to press on – and Hastings’ vehement rejection of the allegations against him – negotiations with a variety of bureaus and commissions eventually yielded a $220,00 settlement in Packer’s favor.
The case is one of many. Over the course of the past two decades, the Congressional Office of Compliance has paid out an estimated $17 million to settle disputes between legislators and their staffers, often over accusations of sexual harassment and abuse.
But for those attempting to right a wrong from within the system, justice can be hard to come by. Whether proven right or wrong, accusers like Packer are made to endure a lengthy, time-consuming promise.
Even if they succeed in gaining justice in the form of financial compensation, they’re bound from the start to confidentiality – often ensuring that one-time predators can become sexual abusers.