Women Sexually Harassed on Capitol Hill

Sexual Harassment in Congress: Is Capitol Hill the New Casting Couch?

Recently disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, and former Today Show host Matt Lauer, have shown America how serial sexual harassers prey on others. They have shown how they use their positions of power and influence to manipulate victims and bystanders into silence. Their accusers and victims, however, have demonstrated the strength and courage needed to call out the sexual harassers who exert influence over their careers, reputations, and future opportunities. Hollywood has a big problem with sexual harassment, and it is not a new one.

Women and men speaking out against Hollywood hotshots have given courage to other, formerly silent victims of sexual harassment; including those who work on Capitol Hill. Perhaps Matt Fuller and Amanda Terkel said it best with the title of their HuffPost article from November 2017: “Congress Has A Sexual Harassment Problem.” The number of accusations made in recent weeks against aspiring, current, and former members of Congress may seem astounding to the average American.

To the women who work in Washington D.C., however, the news is less surprising. One CNN story reported that in recent interviews with 50 lawmakers, aides, and “political veterans who have worked in Congress” nearly everyone said they have personally experienced sexual harassment or know someone who has. These sources say that women working in Congress know who the predators are, sharing a “creep list” among themselves to warn of the worst offenders. These same women know not to ride in Capitol Hill elevators alone with men.

CNN’s sources point to the powerful nature of the lawmakers in our government and the vulnerability of younger aides and staffers. Unfortunately, tolerating sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, and even engaging in unwanted sexual activity may be perceived as necessary to get ahead on the Hill. One woman went as far as to refer to the severity of the problem as the “sex trade on Capitol Hill.”

Within congressional circles, sexual harassment seems to be an open secret. Recent news reports indicate the “secret” is getting out.

Looking at Allegations of Sexual Harassment in Government

Here are just a few of the recent claims of inappropriate sexual conduct making headlines:

  • At least six women came forward to accuse Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of trying to “initiate relationships” with them, decades ago, when they were teenagers, and he was in his 30s. One woman alleges he molested her when she was 14. Another alleges he sexually assaulted her when she was 16.
  • Several women have accused Senator Al Franken of inappropriate touching, groping and forcible kissing. Some of the alleged acts occurred before he became the Minnesota Senator and others during his tenure.
  • John Conyers, who has been in Congress for decades, resigned after pressure following allegations that he made repeated unwanted sexual advances against his female staff members.
  • A woman alleged that during his 2016 campaign, Representative Ruben Kihuen, a Congressman from Nevada, made repeated unwanted sexual advances toward her. She claims she was so uncomfortable with the situation that she quit her job.
  • Representative Blake Farenthold and his aide Bob Haueter were accused of sexually harassing Farenthold’s then communications director who received a settlement of over $80,000.
  • Representative Joe Barton of Texas announced he would not seek reelection in 2018 because someone leaked his lewd texts and an inappropriate photo.

These stories may only be the tip of the iceberg given the number of people CNN interviewed who wished to remain anonymous. Many women on the Hill, like in other jobs, fear the repercussions that can follow when making their accusations public. Fear of derailing their careers, being labeled “troublemakers” or being fired can make even strong victims of sexual harassment think twice about coming forward.

Do Congressional Rules Favor Harassers?

Congressional rules on reporting sexual harassment might make it harder for people to come forward when they are victims of lewd conduct or unwanted touching. The Office of Compliance (OOC) oversees workplace disputes in Congress. The Congressional Accountability Act created the Office in the 1990s. If a congressional aide wants to file a formal complaint for sexual harassment with the OOC he or she must:

  • First, engage in 30 days of counseling.
  • Then, the individual may choose to mediate with a representative of the office at which the complaint is directed, which may add another 30 days to the process.
  • Finally, the victim must wait an additional 30 days before officially filing the complaint or request a hearing either with the OOC or a federal court.

This process does not appear designed to encourage victims to come forward. Some of the women who spoke to CNN claim that most people never get to the stage of filing a formal complaint because the process is time-consuming and discourages victims from pursuing any action.

Are Congressional Changes Ahead?

It is a difficult time on Capitol Hill: Some alleged sexual harassers are receiving pressure to resign while others are actively running for office or holding their positions. In response to the spate of allegations and stories circulating, Congress is taking some steps toward reforming its reputation and processes to provide better support for victims of sexual harassment.

Time Magazine reported that “the House passed a resolution mandating anti-discrimination and anti-sexual harassment training for all members and staff. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has also introduced legislation to revamp the current reporting process known as the “Me Too Congress Act.” Among other things, if a settlement is reached, that bill would require the name of the employing office and the amount of the award or settlement be published on the OOC’s public website.”

A recent NBC News Poll suggests that while many employees think sexual harassment is a general problem, not many (only 9%) think it is an issue in their place of employment. It seems that people working on Capitol Hill know full well that sexual harassment is a problem. Perhaps now that the rest of America knows, the public will hold their representatives accountable for their behavior while Congress starts policing itself in a way that is meaningful.

Contact Us

If you are one of the thousands of employees who have been fired or forced to quit your job because of sexual harassment, you have legal rights. Leeds Brown Law, P.C., representing victims of sexual harassment in New York City and the surrounding metro area, can help. Our attorneys have decades of experience navigating sexual harassment claims for employees in all industries. We provide personal and professional representation to our clients and work diligently to recover the maximum damages the laws allow.

If you think you have a sexual harassment claim, call Leeds Brown for a free case evaluation. Someone is available to take your phone call 24/7 so don’t wait. Call Leeds Brown, New York City’s experienced sexual harassment attorneys.

 

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