Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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EDITORIAL

Stop Congress' secret settlements with sexual harassment victims

The House Ethics Committee has asked the secretive body that handles harassment claims for Congress to hand over records regarding the cases and the millions in settlements paid out in the last 20 years.

The Ethics Committee sent a letter to the Office of Compliance — a once-obscure body that processes complaints about lawmakers and staffers, and pays settlements with the public’s money. While the office has handled these complaints under a cloak of secrecy, the Ethics Committee has asserted that it has jurisdiction over such complaints and is entitled to see the records.

And, oh, what records they are likely to be. What is known is that the office has paid out $17 million in taxpayer money to settle harassment complaints in the last two decades. What is not known is the number of complaints or the names of those accused of wrongdoing.

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People walk outside the Capitol last month.

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That the office has been quietly handling complaints and paying off accusers with taxpayer cash has only come to light since U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) called out the practice last month on the House floor.

The Ethics Committee’s request should be very easy for the Office of Compliance to handle.

Not only should the office hand over the records of the cases it has handled secretly in the past — including all names of the accused harassers and the amounts of each settlement — the office should make such information about closed cases automatically available to the Ethics Committee and the public from now on.

If legislation is necessary to yank back the shield of secrecy behind which these claims have been handled, Congress should not delay in drafting and passing it.

Texas Republican Blake Farenthold has owned up to being one of the accused lawmakers, though he denies he did anything wrong. Mr. Farenthold has said that even though he is innocent of the accusations made against him by a staffer in 2014, he will pay back the $84,000 in public money the Office of Compliance paid to settle the case. The other targets of complaints should follow Mr. Farenthold’s lead and repay the tax money that was spent to settle harassment charges.

The public’s money should never have been spent to settle claims for which an individual congressman or staffer is responsible. And the process for settling such claims should never have happened in secret.

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