On Friday, Politico reported how a little-known House agency—the Office of House Employment Counsel—used public funds to investigate sexual harassment complaints involving people in Representative Blake Farenthold’s office. This was done on Farenthold’s office’s request and included the House Employment Counsel recommending an outside law firm and paying for lawyers to interview Farenthold’s staff.
The Office of House Employment Counsel is a separate entity from the Office of Compliance, which is the usual agency that handles sexual harassment claims in Congress. Politico described the counsel as a “murky” body which operates without anything resembling public accountability:
The Office of House Employment Counsel operates under the auspices of the House clerk’s office and advises members on employment practices. It also facilitates investigations into employee complaints, a spokesperson confirmed to POLITICO. But what happens afterward is murky: The office appears to serve House members and their offices — not necessarily the employees — and makes no public accounting of its determinations or its expenditures.
No one at the Office of House Employment Counsel would answer Politico’s questions about how many sexual harassment claims they had investigated, which lawyers they hired, or how much those lawyers were paid. A former Farenthold aide who made one of the complaints told Politico: “I never saw the actual results of [the investigation] and I never felt like the situation was handled.”
This back-door process, apparently an alternate route for investigating allegations of misconduct, is just one more example of the ways in which harassers in Congress get away with little to no accountability or transparency. It’s already been revealed that politicians use public funds to settle complaints and that the official process for reporting harassment through Congress’s Office of Compliance is extremely burdensome and secretive. It can take up to 90 days—for counseling, mediation, and a “cooling off” period—before employees can even file a complaint; even then, much of the process is confidential. As one employment lawyer told me, the policies aren’t out of date, “they’re exactly how Congress intended them to be, which is to provide more protection and create more hurdles for staffers than other folks have.”
Politicians like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Jackie Speier have spearheaded legislation to overhaul the Office of Compliance’s system for reporting harassment. But Farenthold—who announced Thursday he won’t run for re-election after it was revealed he paid out $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim brought by his former communications director—used a different office to investigate sexual harassment claims among his staff.
In the past months there has been much talk of a lack of “due process” for accused men, especially when it comes to politicians like Senator Al Franken, who was called upon to resign before a formal ethics investigation could take place. But these concerns ring hollow when they don’t take into account how due process has never existed for those raising allegations of sexual harassment, both in Congress and beyond Washington. It’s also depressingly clear that these victims likely won’t see anything resembling a just system emerge anytime soon—after all, we are still learning every day about new ways that sexual harassment is covered up on Capitol Hill.