Taxpayers have paid $17 million in 264 cases over the last 20 years to settle workplace violations, including sexual harassment complaints, attributed to members of Congress.
In one 2015 case, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, paid $27,000 to a former staffer who had complained that she was fired after rebuffing his sexual advances. She signed a confidentiality agreement, according to a Buzzfeed News report. Conyers, 88 and the longest-serving member of Congress, has denied any wrongdoing and thus far ignored calls for him to step down.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is among a group of lawmakers who want to make all of those complaints public and put curbs on future settlements.
In a news release, DeSantis and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), and Kathleen Rice (D-New York) announced the Congressional Accountability and Hush Fund Elimination Act. It would:
–Require disclosure within 30 calendar days of all settlement payments funded by taxpayers, the reason for the payment and the nature of the allegation, and the member of Congress or congressional staffer implicated in the matter.
–Prohibit the future use of taxpayer dollars to pay sexual harassment and sexual assault claims against members of Congress and staff.
–Prohibit members of Congress from using office budgets to camouflage payments.
–Require members of Congress and staff that have ever been named in a sexual harassment or sexual assault settlement paid for by taxpayers reimburse the U.S. Treasury with interest.
–Allow any individual who received an award to make public statements about the claims notwithstanding the terms of a nondisclosure agreement and nondisclosure agreements cannot be made a condition of any future settlements.
DeSantis, who represents Volusia and Flagler counties from the 6th District and is a Palm Coast Republican, questions Congress’ “sincerity” when it comes to combating harassment when its members and staff have used tax dollars to cover for their misconduct in secrecy.
“This legislation will protect taxpayers by making congressional settlement data public, barring tax dollars from being used to bail out congressional misconduct and requiring reimbursement of the treasury by members and staff who have had taxpayer-financed settlements paid on their behalf,” DeSantis said. “The bill will also allow victims to speak publicly about harassment suffered irrespective of any nondisclosure agreements.”
Gabbard said the secrecy of sexual harassment settlements has gone on too long.
“This is outrageous and must end now. Enough is enough,” she said. “Our legislation will empower survivors by increasing transparency and accountability, and providing survivors the freedom to publicly share their stories if they so choose, regardless of the non-disclosure agreements they were forced to sign. It will also protect taxpayers by ending taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlements, and requiring reimbursement of previous taxpayer-funded settlements. Congress has the responsibility to act now to correct this horrible injustice.”
Other cosponsors of the bill include two other members of the Florida delegation: Reps. Francis Rooney, R-Naples; and Thomas Rooney, R-Okeechobee.
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