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Senate releases settlement payout data

Last Updated Dec 22, 2017 11:55 AM EST

WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee quietly released a bare-bones report late Thursday on what a statement called "harassment settlement" data, showing that nearly $1.5 million in taxpayers' money has been spent over the past two decades to cover claims across all Senate offices. 

The two-page release contained no names of senators or victims. It said $599,000 was for 13 settlements involving "member-led" Senate offices, while the remaining $853,000 was for 10 settlements involving "other" Senate offices.

But for member-led offices, only one of the payouts mentioned sex at all. That was a claim involving sex discrimination, a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) violation and reprisal. Most of the claims made in senators' offices involve race or age discrimination. 

In member-led offices, the largest settlement was $267,750 for violations under both the Family Medical Leave Act (MLA) and FLSA. The second-largest payout was $103,000 for age and national origin discrimination and reprisal. 

The Senate's Rules and Appropriations committees released the information on the evening of Congress' final work day this year. It came during a period that has seen several lawmakers resign or announce their retirements following sexual harassment accusations, and growing condemnation for the secrecy with which Congress has guarded information about such cases. 

While the Senate release called the information "harassment settlement data," none of the terse descriptions of each case used those words. Four of the cases involved sex discrimination, including two that also involved "reprisal," while most of the rest were for race, age or disability discrimination.

The document said the largest Senate settlement was $421,000 and was for "race discrimination and reprisal," in a non-member-led office.

Similar figures released this week show $342,000 in federal funds has been used to settle workplace discrimination cases involving House members between 2008 and 2012. That included almost $175,000 for sexual harassment and discrimination allegations.

"Harassment in the workplace should not be tolerated," Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in the statement, "particularly not in the United States Senate." He said his panel wanted to release the information "in a transparent manner" but its priority was to protect victims "from further harm."

The statement said the data came from the Office of Compliance, which oversees the congressional workplace. It covered 1998 through 2017.

Meanwhile, the House Ethics Committee expanded its investigation of Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas beyond its inquiry into sexual harassment allegations to determine whether he lied to the panel.

The committee is now also investigating whether he improperly used House resources to benefit his congressional campaigns, required congressional staff to work on his campaigns, and made false statements or gave incomplete information to the investigating committee.

Farenthold, who has announced he won't seek re-election to a fifth term, is already the subject of an investigation into whether he sexually harassed a former member of his staff and retaliated against her for complaining of discriminatory conduct. The accusations against Farenthold first surfaced in 2014, when a former aide sued him over sexually suggestive comments and behavior, charging that she'd been fired after she complained.

Farenthold, a seven-year House veteran, had said he'd engaged in no wrongdoing when he settled the case in 2015. But after congressional sources said he'd paid a $84,000 settlement using taxpayers' money, the House Ethics Committee said last week it would investigate him and public focus intensified, even though he said he'd reimburse the Treasury Department.

Farenthold had said he was "relieved" that the Ethics Committee would look further into the case. But in the following days, he announced he would not seek re-election after serving out his term. In that announcement, the Texas lawmaker denied the sexual harassment accusations, but he apologized for an office atmosphere he said included "destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general was less than professional."

The House's ethics panel also said Thursday it had created an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada engaged in sexual harassment. Kihuen was already the subject of an ethics investigation, but the subcommittee's formation is necessary for the most serious sanctions in ethics matters.

Kihuen, serving his first term, has also announced he won't seek re-election. He has denied the sexual harassment allegations and said he was committed to fully cooperating with the committee and looked forward to "clearing my name."

In a separate matter, the House Ethics Committee said it voted against forming an investigative subcommittee to review the arrest of Democratic Reps. Judy Chu of California and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois at a protest outside the Capitol. The two lawmakers paid a $50 fine and the committee decided to take no further action.