December 1, 2017 / 4:28 PM / a year ago

House ethics panel launches wide-ranging probe into sexual harassment claims

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives ethics committee has begun a sweeping probe into possible sexual harassment and discrimination by the chamber’s 434 lawmakers and their staff, requesting on Friday a wide range of documents from the congressional office that handles employment disputes.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Dome (L) building is pictured in Washington, DC, U.S. on October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

In a letter to the office, Susan Brooks, the committee’s Republican chair, and Theodore Deutch, its senior Democrat, requested the congressional compliance office promptly share all its records “related to any claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation or any other employment practice.”

Capitol Hill has been rocked this fall by news of possible sexual misconduct by lawmakers, and outrage that public money may have been paid to settle harassment suits against lawmakers.

Most notably Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, is under pressure to resign in light of sexual harassment allegations, which Reuters has not verified. U.S. media have reported Conyers used public funds to settle a claim with a woman, and the ethics committee is currently investigating if he “used official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”

Conyers has acknowledged settling with a former staffer over her claims of harassment, but he has denied wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Texas Republican Representative Joe Barton recently decided not to seek re-election after a nude photo of him appeared on the internet.

The committee had no comment beyond the letter. Pressure is mounting for it to ramp up its enforcement of congressional rules. It last took a disciplinary action on Aug. 1, determining Representative Ben Ray Lujan broke a rule on campaign communications but not imposing any sanctions.

Along with resolving disputes and enforcing employment laws for more than 30,000 people working for Congress, the compliance office provides public money to confidentially settle claims against lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to change that practice with legislation that would require prompt public disclosure of settlement awards.

In a letter sent to House Administration Committee Chair Gregg Harper on Friday, the compliance office said that since 2013 it has paid settlements on two claims including sex discrimination allegations and one alleging sexual harassment.

It paid $84,000 for one sexual harassment claim and $7,000 in one case alleging both sex and religious discrimination.

Politico reported the harassment award was made on behalf of Texas Republican Blake Farenthold.

“While I 100 percent support more transparency with respect to claims against members of Congress, I can neither confirm nor deny that settlement involved my office as the Congressional Accountability Act prohibits me from answering that question,” said Farenthold in a statement.

In 2014 Farenthold’s former communications director Lauren Greene sued him, alleging a hostile work environment, gender discrimination, and retaliation, court documents show. Farenthold and Greene reached a mediated agreement in 2015 to avoid costly litigation, but the settlement’s details were confidential, according to a statement released at the time, where Farenthold denied engaging in any wrongdoing.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, G Crosse and Susan Thomas

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