Taxpayer piggy bank lets Congress settle sexual harassment cases in secret

Equal treatment for lawmakers? Don’t count on it.

A little-known law has been on the books for more than a decade that gives anyone accusing a federal lawmaker of sexual harassment the right to sue – but only if they consent to a lengthy drawn-out process that includes a written statement within 180 days of the incident, 30 days of counseling and another month or so of mediation.

During that time, the claimant’s employer will be notified. The lawmaker’s identity, however, will remain confidential even if he or she is found guilty.

Should there be a settlement – and there have been many – it’s the American taxpayer that’s on the hook, with “no public disclosure and no consequences for the harasser,” said California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier.

“The so-called process was clearly drafted to protect the institution rather than the most vulnerable,” Speier told Fox News in a statement. “Survivors have to sign a never-ending nondisclosure agreement just to start the complaint process, which is unheard of in the private sector, then continue to work in their office alongside their harasser.”

The money comes from a special U.S. Treasury fund – and the payouts are kept quiet. That means, those found to be at fault are publicly shielded and don’t have to pay a penny out of pocket for settlement costs.

Speier, a victim of sexual harassment herself, is spearheading legislation that will overhaul the complaint process in Congress and provide “badly needed transparency and support for survivors.”

The Washington Post, which first reported on the fund, found that between 1997 and 2014, $15.2 million was paid out to 235 claimants.

Speier hopes other lawmakers will start to speak out about the current system in place to protect politicians.

She told CNN that she would try again this year and that her bill to require House members and their staff to take anti-harassment training is gaining support.

Speier believes there is “still a serious problem” in Congress, partly because it was never addressed.

Sex scandals involving current and former lawmakers have come up more and more in the past few years. At least a dozen members have resigned or chosen not to seek re-election.

Speier has openly described her own experience with sexual harassment when she was a junior staffer in Congress.

“We have a problem with a system that is really there to protect the accused, and to diminish the victim,” she said. “And to the victims, I’ve talked to who have current cases before the Office of Compliance, it’s a nightmare what they have gone through.”

Unlike every other federal agency, there is no mandatory sexual harassment training for employees in Congress. Each office decides whether its staff should get training.

The Office of Compliance, the agency that handles sexual harassment training when requested, recently sent a letter to lawmakers reminding them to prioritize taking the training.

Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan sent a memo to House lawmakers urging them to invest in training, referencing the wide-ranging allegations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry, media and beyond.

“In recent weeks, reports of sexual harassment by public figures have been deeply disturbing to say the least,” he wrote in a letter to colleagues. “I have heard from members with real concerns about the House’s policies.”

On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley wrote a letter to the Senate Rules Committee pushing to make sexual harassment training mandatory for all U.S. senators.

New York Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand announced she plans to introduce legislation that would streamline the investigation process for harassment cases.