Congress Face Mounting Pressure to End Secrecy Over Sexual Harassment as Lawmakers Return From Holiday Break

Representative John Conyers Jr. on a monitor during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in July.
Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Lawmakers are facing mounting pressure to end Capitol Hill’s culture of secrecy over sexual harassment as they return from a holiday break, with members of both parties calling for Congress to overhaul its handling of misconduct claims and to unmask lawmakers who have paid settlements using taxpayer money.

On Sunday, the roiling debate over sexual harassment cost one lawmaker who has paid such a settlement — Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan — his post as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, at least temporarily. Mr. Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House, announced that he was stepping aside as the House Ethics Committee investigates allegations that he sexually harassed aides.

And on the other side of the Capitol, Senator Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who has been accused of groping several women, told a home state newspaper that he would return to work on Monday feeling “embarrassed and ashamed.”

The announcements by Mr. Conyers and Mr. Franken came as both Democrats and Republicans took to the Sunday morning television talk shows to call for greater transparency in how harassment claims are dealt with. Under a 1995 law, complaints are handled confidentially. Lawyers for the House and the Senate have required that settlements be kept confidential as well.

“All of this, as difficult as it is in some respects for our society, is really important because I think it will end up changing people’s attitudes and changing our culture,” Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “So I am glad it’s being discussed. I think it should be more transparent. I certainly think that if you accept taxpayer funds for settlement, that should be transparent.”

The House is expected this week to adopt a bipartisan resolution mandating that all members and their staffs participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training; the Senate has already adopted such a resolution. The more difficult task will be passing legislation that overhauls the way sexual harassment claims are handled.

In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, and Representative Barbara Comstock, Republican of Virginia, is pushing for legislation that would require claims to be handled in public. In the Senate, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has put forth similar legislation.

“It was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser,” Ms. Speier said on the ABC program “This Week,” adding, “We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are.”

One major question, however, is whether the Speier-Comstock legislation should apply retroactively, meaning that those who have paid past settlements would now be identified. The legislation would cover any settlement reached since the beginning of this year.

While Mr. Portman said he would support retroactive releases, others, including Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, were more cautious, saying that unmasking lawmakers could reveal the identity of victims who want to remain private.

“All of these nondisclosure agreements have to go,” Ms. Pelosi said on “Meet the Press.” But, she said, “if the victim wants to be private, she can be.”

Debra Katz, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual harassment, echoed those concerns.

“For a number of my clients, that’s the last thing in the world they would want and could have life-altering consequences,” Ms. Katz said in an interview on Sunday. “They settled their cases to be able to move on with their lives while protecting their privacy.”

In the case of Mr. Conyers, the lawyer Lisa Bloom, who announced on Sunday that she was representing the woman who filed the complaint against him, said a confidentiality agreement was preventing the woman from telling her side of the story. Ms. Bloom urged Mr. Conyers to release her client from the agreement so she could speak publicly.

News of Mr. Conyers’s settlement was reported last week by BuzzFeed News, which published documents showing that he had settled a complaint in 2015 by a former employee who had said she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances. The news site said it had received documents about the case from Mike Cernovich, a right-wing online commentator.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Yamiche Alcindor