A former aide to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a six-term Democrat from Texas, has reportedly filed a complaint with the Congressional Office of Compliance alleging that Cuellar fired her for being pregnant.
According to the Washington Post, Kristie Small, who joined Cuellar’s office in June, was fired as his acting chief of staff last week. She told the Post that the problems began when she informed Cuellar of her pregnancy:
Small said that when she asked the Texas lawmaker to meet to discuss plans for her maternity leave, he told her she was on a 90-day “probation period” and set two new markers for her performance that he later claimed she had failed to meet.
Small said that they met to discuss the probation period Sept. 5 and that Cuellar praised her work while asking her to help the office’s media team and learn more about his legislative positions. She said he told her they would revisit the issues in 30 days.
Small said she had been “working on those two things already” and devoted substantial effort after their conversation to fulfilling his requests.
Small told the Post that she had never been informed of the existence of a probationary period and that no other staffers she discussed the matter with had ever had a similar conversation with Cuellar. Last Tuesday, she said, Cuellar called her and told her she could either be fired or resign.
“I knew I was doing an excellent job,” Small told the Post. “All of this started happening in response to my maternity-leave email. It’s 100 percent clear to me that had I not been pregnant, I would still be in this job.”
Cuellar’s office sent Splinter this statement in response to our request for comment:
The Office of Representative Cuellar considers internal personnel matters confidential and will not comment publicly on Ms. Small’s allegations at this time, except to say that the office values its employees and conducts all personnel matters in compliance with the Congressional Accountability Act and applicable House Rules. All actions taken with respect to Ms. Small’s employment were in compliance with the law and House Rules.
Small’s complaint is part of a lengthy, controversial internal Congressional procedure. Before she’s able to file a formal lawsuit, Small is legally required to go through a counseling and mediation process with the Office of Compliance. Since the Office of Compliance is within the legislative branch, it’s not subject to FOIA requests. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the OOC had paid out over $17 million since 1997 to settle 264 employment violations, including for sexual harassment.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, which resulted in several members of Congress resigning or declining to seek re-election, both the Senate and the House passed bills this year to alter their internal accountability system. The two chambers weren’t able to come to an agreement on a final bill, however, before the midterm election. (We’ve reached out to the Office of Compliance for comment on Small’s complaint, and will update with any response we receive.)
“The average American doesn’t know about this secret process that happens in Congress,” Small’s attorney Sara Blackwell told the Post. “We want people to know that this is happening, that this is what Kristie went through and that her only recourse is through this secretive, unfair system, when there is a bill pending that could change everything.”
Update, 5:28 p.m. ET: “The Congressional Accountability Act requires that the OOC maintain the confidentially of contacts made with the office,” a spokesperson for the OOC told Splinter in an email. “The OOC is precluded from commenting on whether matters have or have not been filed with the office.”