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Want to know who else has been accused of sexual harassment in Congress? Good luck

Stephanie Akin, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The details of sexual harassment complaints against members of Congress and their staffs are secret and cannot be released to lawmakers seeking to determine the extent of the problem on Capitol Hill, a congressional official testified Thursday.

"The law doesn't allow us to release anything," Susan Grundmann, the executive director of the office that oversees the response to sexual harassment complaints in Congress, said at a hearing of the House Administrative Committee. If lawmakers want to know more -- including the number of complaints filed and the names of the accused -- they will have to change the law, she said.

That response is the latest of a series of frustrations met by lawmakers who are scrambling to respond to a national focus on sexual harassment in some of America's most powerful institutions, fueled in part by allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and President Donald Trump. The wave of claims that followed has felled high-ranking men in private industries, including the media.

In Congress, two senior Democratic lawmakers, Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken, have been named by accusers and forced to resign in recent days -- Franken announced his resignation Thursday. But overall the response has been slower than in other industries, stymied in part by a system of reporting and responding to sexual harassment complaints that has not been revised since 1995. Thursday's hearing was the second aimed at addressing shortcomings in that process.

"This is a watershed moment and we need to take this opportunity to really fundamentally change in how we address this in Congress" and beyond, said Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va.

Comstock said later that the committee agrees on some revisions to the law and is working to release draft legislation, "as early as we can get it right."Areas of consensus include new protections for victims, such as a counselor or ombudsman who would advocate for their interests throughout the process.

Lawmakers would also like to prohibit the use of taxpayer money to pay for sexual harassment settlements. They are also considering some prohibition on nondisclosure agreements that prohibit victims from speaking out about their experience, she said.


She added that she would be in favor of changing the part of the law that prohibits the release of basic information about complaints and settlements. Such regulations have made it difficult to understand the extant of the problem, she and other lawmakers have said.

Congressional offices have paid at least $359,450 for six claims in five years, $84,000 of which was to a sexual harassment claim against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, according to data released last week by the House Administration Committee and media reports. That data, from the Congressional Office of Compliance, does not include settlements paid out of members' own office budgets.

In a follow-up request, the House Ethics Committee, which also has jurisdiction over harassment complaints, asked the Office of Compliance for all its records on complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other prohibited actions by sitting members of Congress or their staffs. That request was denied in a letter Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks received Thursday morning.

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