Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) settled an $84,000 sexual harassment claim brought by his former communications director with taxpayer funds, according to a Politico report Friday afternoon. The settlement was publicized when it was settled in 2015, but it had not been clear until now how Farenthold paid it.
Farenthold is the only sitting member of Congress known to have used a congressional fund to settle allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and creating a hostile work environment.
Under current law, which more than 20 years ago set up a convoluted process of dealing with workplace complaints in Congress, an account of the Office in the Treasury is responsible for paying out money to settle claims of sexual harassment and assault. Even though these payments are made with taxpayer funding, they are typically kept secret from the public.
But on Friday, Politico reported — and NBC News later confirmed — that Farenthold made one of these taxpayer-funded settlements to his former communications director, Lauren Green.
Greene sued the congressman in 2014. Politico reports that, in the lawsuit, Greene accuses Farenthold of telling another aide that he had sexual fantasies and “wet dreams” about Greene. When Greene complained about the comments, she says she was improperly fired. She dropped her lawsuit after she and Farenthold came to a private settlement.
In a private meeting Friday morning, Politico reports, House Administration Committee Chairman Gregg Harper (R-MS) said that just one House office had settled a sexual harassment complaint through the Treasury account since 2012. Harper said the settlement totaled $84,000, according to the Politico report.
Farenthold said in a statement that he could neither confirm nor deny that his office was the one in question, as the Congressional Accountability Act prohibits him from answering that question. Greene’s lawyer also declined to say whether Greene was the person who had received that settlement money.
Here is the full Rep Blake Farenthold statement on sexual harassment settlement –> pic.twitter.com/jvVQVcxKKr
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) December 1, 2017
But Politico also obtained a statement the two prepared at the time that was never released, which confirmed it was Farenthold and Greene who had reached the $84,000 settlement.
“[A]fter it became clear that further litigating this case would come at great expense to all involved — including the taxpayers — the parties engaged in mediation with a court-appointed mediator,” the statement reportedly read. “After extensive discussion and consideration, the parties jointly agreed to accept the solution proposed by the mediator.”
The statement also said that Farenthold denied all of Greene’s accusations, which included sexual harassment by Farenthold’s top aide, Bob Haueter, as well. Greene reportedly complained that Farenthold drank excessively, talked about a female lobbyist who he said propositioned him for a threesome, and that Haueter had commented that Greene could “show her nipples whenever she wanted to.”
Because of the environment created by the two men, Greene said she avoided meeting alone with her boss.
In 2014, BuzzFeed also reported that Farenthold had owned the domain name “Blow-Me.Org” for more than a decade.
The revelations about Farenthold’s settlement come in the midst of an avalanche of allegations made against powerful men in media, politics, and other industries — including two sitting members of Congress: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).
Conyers also paid a former staffer who accused him of improperly firing her after she rejected his advances, but Conyers paid out of his own office’s budget, not the Treasury fund. (It is unclear why Conyers was able to avoid following the law that requires payments through the same fund Farenthold used.) And as of Thursday, six women have come forward accusing Franken of sexual misconduct.
The issue isn’t confined to Farenthod, Conyers, and Franken. Several current and former congresswomen and staffers have said men who sexually harassed them are still serving in Congress.
In the wake of these allegations, there has been considerable backlash to Congress’ secret taxpayer-funded settlements.
But part of the problem is the convoluted process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress. Victims can only file a complaint with the Office of Compliance within 180 days of the incident, which then triggers a months-long process, including a forced “meditation period,” before victims can file a case in court. The process is highly secretive and taxpayer-funded.
To make matters worse, the process is only available for full-time employees, not interns.
Two congresswomen are aiming to change the process by which someone can file a complaint. Earlier this month, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act, which would require a more transparent process, as well as more support for victims and whistleblowers. The bill would also stipulate that lawmakers pay for their own settlements.