Sexual Harassment
January 3, 2018

Last spring, congressional Republicans passed and President Trump signed a law repealing former President Barack Obama's Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, finalized in August 2016, as part of their liberal use of the Congressional Review Act to nullify 14 Obama-era regulations. The rule required federal contractors to disclose sexual harassment and other labor violations before receiving significant federal contracts, Politico reports, and also forbade large contractors from forcing employees to take labor complaints to arbitration, typically secret proceedings where the worker is more likely to lose than in court.

Mandatory arbitration plays a big part in sexual misconduct cases, and former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson has made abolishing such clauses — ubiquitous in her former employer's sexual harassment settlements — a central plank in her campaign against sexual harassment. A few months after Trump signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces repeal, The New York Times published its exposé on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, starting the #MeToo moment that has forced out prominent men in media, the arts, and Congress.

"I can tell you without a doubt," Ben Olinsky, an Obama labor policy aide who helped write the jettisoned rule, tells Politico. "This provision would have brought significant new accountability to federal contractors with sexual harassment and assault." Now, Congress is working on bipartisan legislation, Senate bill 2203, that would ban forced arbitration not just among federal contractors but all businesses. Its main sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), voted to repeal the Obama rule.

Republicans say they did not repeal the Obama rule because of sexual harassment, which they point out is already illegal. But labor experts say contractors are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, and the problem has grown as the number of federal contractors has mushroomed, costing more than $400 billion a year now from $182 billion in 1993. You can read more about the proposed and scrapped regulations at Politico. Peter Weber

December 14, 2017

Former aides to Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) have described his Capitol Hill office as a beer-fueled frat house where sexual innuendo and angry outbursts by the congressman are commonplace, and on Wednesday, another former staffer, Michale Rekola, provided some more details to CNN. "Every time he didn't like something, he would call me a f--ktard or idiot," said Rekola, Farenthold's communications director for nine months in 2015. "He would slam his fist down in rage and explode in anger."

Another former aide, Elizabeth Peace, confirmed that Farenthold would regularly use the word "f--ktards" on staffers, and Farenthold admitted doing so to CNN. He said he used the term "in jest, not in anger," though "in hindsight, I admit it wasn't appropriate." Peace also confirmed Rekola's account of crude sexual comments Farenthold made right before Rekola left town to get married. "Better have your fiancée blow you before she walks down the aisle — it will be the last time," Farenthold said, according to Rekola. He said Farenthold also joked suggestively that his fiancée maybe shouldn't wear white on her wedding day. "Every staffer in that area heard it," Peace told CNN. "It was the most shocking thing I'd heard him say at that point."

Rekola developed serious stomach problems while working at Farenthold's office, and after returning from his honeymoon, he quit. Farenthold's treatment of staffers came to light with the news that he settled a sexual harassment claim by a former aide with $84,000 in public funds. He is not stepping down and plans to run for re-election next year, though he will face some strong challengers in the GOP primary. Peter Weber

December 12, 2017

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) is not stepping down despite an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement he reached with his former press secretary, Lauren Greene, a new House Ethics Committee investigation of that settlement, and five Republican challengers in his safe GOP district. "It's lonelier than it's been in past times, but he's not alone," Farenthold's chief of staff, Bob Haueter, told The Texas Tribune on Monday evening.

Also on Monday evening, The New York Times took "a peek into the inner workings" of Farenthold's Capitol Hill office, revealing a "hostile work environment, rife with sexual innuendo" and fueled by alcohol, where "sexually explicit conversations are routine, pickup lines are part of daily life, hiring can be based on looks, tolerance is expected, and intolerance of such behavior is career-ending." The Times based its report on House aides, former Farenthold staffers, and legal documents. Some of the details make Farenthold's office sound like the fraternity in Animal House, the Times reports:

The refrigerator in the "bullpen" — the open area where aides worked — was filled with beer, and sometimes happy hour would begin at 4:30 p.m., which his aides called "beer-thirty." [Former Press Secretary Elizabeth] Peace said women would discuss which male lobbyists had texted them pictures of their genitals, and both men and women would talk about strip clubs and whether certain Fox News anchors had breast implants. [The New York Times]

Greene's complaint alleged that Farenthold liked redheads especially, "regularly drank to excess, and because of his tendency to flirt, the staffers who accompanied him to Capitol Hill functions would joke that they had to be on 'redhead patrol' to keep him out of trouble." Farenthold's lawyers denied that there client's attraction to redheads "was a source for, or cause of, concern for any staffer." You can read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

December 12, 2017

The White House has been working to insulate President Trump from the #MeToo moment that has toppled prominent men at top levels of media, entertainment, and politics, given Trump's own roster of women accusing him of sexual misconduct and his hot-mic bragging about assaulting women on the Access Hollywood bus. The White House, which pushed back against the women who repeated their stories of being harassed by Trump on Monday, is "warily" watching political careers crumble on Capitol Hill, The Associated Press reports, and Trump's advisers were "stunned Sunday when one of the highest-ranking women in the Trump administration broke with the White House line and said the accusers' voices 'should be heard.'"

That woman, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, tepidly defended the women's right to speak out on CBS News, and her "comments infuriated the president, according to two people who are familiar with his views," AP says. "Trump has grown increasingly angry in recent days that the accusations against him have resurfaced, telling associates that the charges are false and drawing parallels to the accusations facing Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore."

Trump is reportedly telling people in private that the tornado of accusations of sexual assault against powerful men is spinning out of control, and "some outside Republicans close to the president said they are increasingly uneasy about his ability to withstand a revived spotlight on his behavior toward women," The Washington Post reports. "A number of Trump associates are also wary of the potential political costs if the president goes on a sustained attack against his accusers," while others are more sanguine. "They think he's invincible on this issue, because he survived the Access Hollywood tape," a Republican strategist close to the White House told the Post. "He was literally caught on tape saying he does this — it was a big deal — and he still won." Peter Weber

December 5, 2017

On Monday, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said he planned to pay back $84,000 in taxpayer funds he used to settle a 2014 sexual harassment claim from his former communications director, Lauren Greene, and Greene recounted how after accusing Farenthold of sexually harassing her, she was "blackballed" in Washington and still babysits for spare money as she works temp jobs in her native North Carolina. In a federal lawsuit, Greene said Farenthold had confided that he hadn't had sex with his wife in years, told another aide he had "sexual fantasies" and "wet dreams" about Greene, and fired Greene after she complained about the comments. Farenthold maintains he did nothing wrong.

Greene, 30, told her story to Politico and CNN's Anderson Cooper on Monday. After graduating from college in 2009, Greene said, she moved to Washington to pursue a life in politics, started interning with a congressman from Oklahoma, was hired full-time, then moved to Farenthold's office in 2013. When she was promoted to communications director in 2014, that's when things started getting inappropriate. She "held out hope that ... it wasn't career suicide" to come forward, Greene told Politico, but it was, and she hasn't been able to find full-time work since, a situation she attributes to word of her harassment settlement following her south.

Even though she's now making $15 an hour at a temp job and has to babysit and get financial support from her family, she said, "it was the right thing to do to stand up for myself and so that's just something I take solace in." On CNN, Greene said accusing Farenthold "stagnated my career a bit," but "what is going on right now, it's more than a moment, I think it's a reckoning and we're having these conversations that have been needed to be had." Peter Weber

November 28, 2017

On Monday, Deanna Maher, a deputy chief of staff to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) from 1997 to 2005, told The Detroit News that Conyers made unwanted sexual advances on her three times — inviting her to have sex with him in his hotel room in 1997, touching her against her wishes while driving to the airport in 1998, and touching her leg under her dress in 1999. Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, stepped down from leadership of the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday amid an ethics investigation prompted by a settlement he reached with another staffer who accused him of sexual harassment. Conyers denies the accusations, including Maher's.

A former Detroit Free Press reporter said that Maher had told her about the alleged harassment at the time, but "she didn't feel confident she wouldn't be hung out to dry and retaliated against." Maher had a similar explanation for her silence. "I didn't report the harassment because it was clear nobody wanted to take it seriously," she told The Detroit News. "John Conyers is a powerful man in Washington, and nobody wanted to cross him."

A third woman, Melanie Sloan, told The Washington Post that Conyers had been verbally (but not sexually) abusive to her when she worked for him as minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in the 1990s. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who took heat for calling Conyers "an icon" on Sunday — said Monday she had spoken with Sloan about the "unacceptable and disappointing" behavior by Conyers, but hadn't "had the opportunity to speak with the other women, one of whom cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place" under the "ridiculous system" in Congress that must be changed. Peter Weber

November 20, 2017

In 2015, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) settled a wrongful dismissal complaint filed by a former employee who said she was fired after refusing to "succumb" to Conyers' "sexual advances," BuzzFeed News reports.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she was afraid of retaliation, said she complained in 2014 to Congress' Office of Compliance, and she ultimately signed a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of $27,111.75, which came from Conyers' office budget. Conyers admitted no fault as part of the settlement, BuzzFeed News reports. His office did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment, and the Office of Compliance could not confirm or deny dealing with the woman's case.

BuzzFeed News was given documents related to the case by right-wing Twitter provocateur Mike Cernovich, who claimed he passed them along because if he published them, Democrats would "try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger." BuzzFeed News says it independently confirmed the authenticity of the documents, which included four signed affidavits. The affidavits were from women who used to work for Conyers, who said he asked them for sexual favors and would rub their backs and legs. For more on the allegations and the process of filing sexual harassment complaints in Congress, visit BuzzFeed News. Catherine Garcia

November 14, 2017

Nearly 50 lawmakers and political aides told CNN that they have "personally experienced sexual harassment on the Hill or know of others who have." One female congresswoman claimed "half [of the men in Congress] are harassers" before revising her statement to assert that only "some" are. Whatever the exact numbers, though, harassment is reportedly common and widespread; as one Senate aide put it, Capitol Hill is "a sort of old school, Wild West workplace culture that has a lot of 'work hard, play hard' ethos and without the sort of standard professionalism that you find in more traditional workplaces."

Female lawmakers and Hill staff reportedly use a word-of-mouth "creep list" to warn each other about which male members to avoid. Others employ basic rules of thumb: Avoid the male lawmakers who sleep in their offices, for example, and skip taking an elevator alone with a male congressman or senator.

The people CNN interviewed declined to go on record, many out of fear of repercussions. CNN additionally declined to name which lawmakers face allegations because the stories are unverified, although "more than half a dozen interviewees independently named one California congressman for pursuing female staffers; another half dozen pointed to a Texas congressman for engaging in inappropriate behavior."

Leaders from both major parties have called for sexual harassment training in Congress, as well as cited flaws in the system of handling victims' harassment allegations. "We must ensure that this institution handles complaints to create an environment where staffers can come forward if something happens to them without having to fear that it will ruin their careers," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) earlier this month.

Still, not everyone is optimistic. "There's a little bit of a sex trade on Capitol Hill," said one former staffer. "If a part of getting ahead on Capitol Hill is playing ball with whatever douchebag — then whatever." Read the full report at CNN. Jeva Lange

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