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As Accusations Stack Up, a Look at the Onerous Process of Reporting Sexual Abuse on Capitol Hill

What happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing?

What happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing? As Senator Al Franken returned to Congress in the face of allegations from four women that he had groped or inappropriately touched them, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to and believed one of the women who has accused Michigan Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment, we speak with Alexis Ronickher, an attorney who has represented multiple congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress’s Office of Compliance.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. We begin today’s show looking at sexual harassment in Washington and what happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing.

On Monday, Senator Al Franken returned to Congress in the face of allegations from four women now that he had groped or inappropriately touched them. A contrite Franken vowed “This will not happen again.”

SENATOR AL FRANKEN: I just want to say a few words before I get back to work. I know that I have let a lot of people down. The people of Minnesota, my colleagues, my staff, my supporters, and everyone who has counted on me to be a champion for women. To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry. I know there are no magic words that I can say to regain your trust, and I know that’s going to take time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, on Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to and believed one of the women who has accused Michigan Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment. Conyers reportedly settled a harassment complaint in 2015, paying out $27,000 to a woman who alleged she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances. Conyers has since stepped down as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Pelosi issued a statement saying, “This afternoon, I spoke with Melanie Sloan who worked for Congressman Conyers on the Judiciary Committee in the mid-1990s. Ms. Sloan told me that she had publicly discussed distressing experiences while on his staff. I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing, and I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi went on to criticize the process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress, saying, quote, “I have not had the opportunity to speak with the other women, one of whom cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place.
That ridiculous system must be ended, and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so.” This came one day after Congressmember Pelosi called Congressman Conyers an icon who deserves due process during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

REP. NANCY PELOSI: We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — The Violence Against Women Act, which the right wing is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that — and he did great work on that.

AMY GOODMAN: So Congresswoman Pelosi has called for due process for her colleague, Congressman Conyers, and also called the process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress a “ridiculous system” that must be ended. That system gives sexual harassment victims in Congress 180 days to bring a claim to the Congressional Office of Compliance, which handles workplace complaints. Victims are then subject to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling. They then have a cooling-off period to decide whether to bring claims to mediation. If they don’t want mediation, they are out of options.

For more, we go to Washington, DC where we’re joined by Alexis Ronickher, an attorney with the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, who has represented multiple congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress’s Office of Compliance. Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start by you laying out, Alexis, the process, which is being disputed now — legislation is being written to change it — the process a person has to go through who works on the Hill to bring a charge of sexual harassment or sexual assault against a congressmember.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. A staff member who finds themselves in a situation where they’re facing sexual harassment, even sexual assault, the process for pursuing a claim would be within 180 days, as you said, they would need to go to the Office of Compliance, which is a small agency that is part of the legislative branch, and file what is called for request for counseling. Counseling is somewhat of a misnomer. It is more of an intake process. That counseling period is 30 days, and by statute, it is strictly confidential.

Then, the staff member, should they choose to proceed and want to continue with their claim, they file a request for mediation. The mediation period is 30 days and it is mandatory. That means that a staff member, even if they know that they want to go to court, has to participate in this mandatory mediation, in which they have to in good faith — they have to sign an agreement that says in good faith they’re going to attempt to resolve this dispute with the employing office. If that mediation…

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, are they mediating with the congressman at that point?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: The civil action is not against the congressperson. It is against the office. There’s actually no way to bring a claim directly against the congressmember who is harassing the staffer. So they are actually mediating against, or with, the office. Now whether the office chooses to bring the harasser, whether it be a congressperson or a chief of staff, that is actually up to the office, not up to the person who is bringing the claim.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last week, Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado told MSNBC she is among many women who’ve been sexually harassed while serving in Congress. This is what she said.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE: A lot of my colleagues and others have said this is going on, but they seem somehow still reluctant to say who did it. Some years ago, I was in an elevator and then-Congressman Bob Filner tried to pin me to the door of the elevator and kissed me, and I pushed him away. And of course, some years later, he left Congress. He became the mayor of San Diego, and then he had to leave that position for harassing younger women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An aide to Representative DeGette told The Denver Post she did not file a complaint or take official action in the incident she described. Do you have any sense of how often people do not actually file complaints even though they were subjected to harassment?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: There’s no numbers on Congress, per se, except that there was a survey that was conducted I believe by Roll Call in which one of six women said that they had been sexually harassed. What we saw by the numbers publicized by the Office of Compliance in 2016, only eight Senate and House staffers came forward with any request for counseling about anything. We don’t know how many of those are harassment. But just the dichotomy in those two sets of numbers show that most are not coming forward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How different is the process that Congress uses compared to private industry or even other local, state and city governments?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: The most significant difference between the process that Congress has created for itself and private and federal is the confidentiality requirement through the counseling and mediation period, which isolates the victims of sexual harassment. And also this mandatory mediation, which forces a victims or person who has been sexually harassed to sit down at the table and attempt to resolve a dispute even if they would like to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s be clear. At the moment of mediation, both sides can have a lawyer? Who pays for these lawyers?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: So yes, both sides can have a lawyer. The office’s attorney is paid for as part of the administrative costs of the House or the Senate. They have their own in-house employment lawyers. For the victim, they have to procure their own attorney and figure out a way to pay for it.

AMY GOODMAN: So the congressman has a taxpayer-funded lawyer and the plaintiff has to get her own lawyer.


AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what this nondisclosure agreement is in this period at the beginning, and how many days does it go on for? Can the person tell contemporaneously, when it happens, people? Can they tell their therapist, et cetera?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes, let’s break this down. There’s a nondisclosure agreement that is subject — that is agreed to as part of the settlement process. But the actual whole process of counseling and mediation has to be strictly confidential by statute. That being said, a person who has been sexually harassed can always — there’s nothing preventing them from being public about what has happened to them.

What they can’t speak about is pursuing legal action while they’re going through this counseling and mediation stage. I do think that’s important, because that is very isolating for the person, but it also prevents them from telling other people that they are moving forward, encouraging other people to move forward with them, and it prevents multiple people coming forward, and also the person just being able to verify that not only am I saying that this happened, but I am taking action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We have seen these reports of the $17 million figure of settlements on Capitol Hill, but that doesn’t just deal with sexual harassment complaints, right? It could also be other types of complaints, and doesn’t necessarily deal with members of Congress per se. It could also mean Capitol Hill staffers. Could you talk about that as well?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Sure. The vast majority of those, just based on the numbers put out by the Office of Compliance, are a request for counseling involving Capitol Police. The employees for the office of the Architect of the Capitol. Very few of those are congressional staffers from the House and the Senate. And at this point, the Office of Compliance has not broken down whether they are for discrimination, whether they are for harassment, or whether they are for workplace issues such as OSHA, which is occupational safety, or disability accommodations.

So right now, we have no way of knowing what portion of those complaints or requests for counseling, and what portion of that settlement, is for harassment. But in my experience, the number that was put forward with the case involving representative Conyers, which was a little under $28,000, is much more indicative of the settlement range than, you know, $17 million.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis, can you actually talk about the case of Conyers? A lot is being made of the fact he paid it out of his office budget. $27,000. As opposed to, what? I mean, both are taxpayer-funded. Both his office budget and this office that the vast majority of people don’t know about, where the $17 million came out of. Right? But also, if you can talk overall about this case? Your response to the wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged she was fired when she did not accept Congressman Conyers’ sexual advances.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. This case is very concerning. I can tell you as an employment lawyer who represents people both in the private sector and congressional staffers, that being able to come forward with 14 affidavits from witnesses that corroborate what you say and witnesses who work there is relatively rare. People are not usually willing to risk their jobs and careers to do this.

So the fact that this complainant was able to do that and then the result of that was a settlement of three months severance, is a travesty, really, and it shows the environment that women who are coming forward with sexual harassment claims on the Hill endure, which is, it is your career on the line and no one believes you. And if you decide to go public, it is going to affect your career more than the person who harassed you. And so, that’s just very troubling.

But to speak about what the dichotomy of whether it comes from the member’s allowance or the fund that was set up by Congress, I think that too much is being made about taxpayer dollars being used for this. Quite frankly, taxpayer dollars are used for sexual harassment claims that are settled on the executive branch side, at the Department of Interior, or Homeland Security. That is how employees who have been discriminated against in the federal workforce — that is how their settlements are paid.

I think what is critical in this circumstance is that the settlements require strict confidentiality, that the statute outlines a way that they are supposed to be paid, which is through the special fund, but members have gone around that because to access that fund, you have to go through several steps which would disseminate the information that they have been accused of sexual harassment. So members have now gone around that and have used their member allowance, which after carefully reviewing the statute, I believe is contrary to the statute.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also this issue of when these settlements are done in secret, that other women on the Hill have no knowledge of the history of some of these legislators that they are working around or for.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. And like we said, there’s a strict confidentiality of the process, so they can’t even know that women have pursued claims, let alone that there has been a settlement. And, I think that that’s important. People come — young women, and also men — some men are sexually harassed as well — they come to the Hill. They are often very young. They are bright-eyed. They want to be making a change and affecting policy, and then they find themselves in an environment where they’re being abused and harassed, and there’s no place to turn to.

And had there been any public light as to prior instances of sexual harassment, they would be able to know not to go to those positions.

AMY GOODMAN: A bipartisan resolution introduced Friday in the House would require all members, congressional staff, interns and fellows to receive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. The Washington Post reports, quote, “Each member and employee would receive training within the first 90 days of each session of Congress, or within 90 days of becoming a member or an employee. Each member office would be required to display a poster created by the Office of Compliance that outlines employees’ legal rights and protections and how they can report allegations of workplace violations.” So, Alexis Ronickher, do you think this is what needs to happen? There’s also legislation that is changing the law, as it’s in place. It went into place in 1995? If you can talk about that and what you feel needs to be changed?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. This member training and poster Band-Aid is not going to change things. If you look — for the last 20 years, private employers have used training and notifying employees how to report, and it has not reduced sexual harassment. It is certainly not going to do that on the Hill. Is it a good step? It is certainly good to notify people of how to move forward. Yes, that is a good step. But that is the very smallest of steps.

So what really needs to happen is the legislation that Representative Speier and Representative Comstock and Senator Gillibrand have introduced, the ME TOOCongress bill that will revise the process. It gets rid of the requirements of someone having to go through the counseling and the mandatory mediation. It gets rid of the required confidentiality. It makes any settlement — that the harassed person doesn’t have to sign a confidentiality agreement if they don’t want to. It really takes care of a lot of the systemic hurdles of the law.

It is not going to change the overwhelming environmental problems that create such a hospitable environment for sexual harassment, but it certainly at least gets rid of some of the legal hurdles to remedying those when it happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And it names the congressmember?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Pardon? Say that again?

AMY GOODMAN: It allows for the naming of congress members?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes, my understanding of the legislation is it would allow the person who is sexually harassed to be public about it, even if they settle their matter.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you want to just find out what congressmembers have had to pay out money or have been charged, can you find that out, as a member of the public?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: I believe that it starts at the beginning of this year. This is a point that lawmakers are still debating. And I have to say, I am concerned about — I’ve represented prior staffers, and part of the reason they resolved their claims was because they didn’t want to be in the public eye. These offices are very small. It is a concern for these individuals that once information comes out, that they will quickly be identified. So going forward, if someone knows that, I think that absolutely is the right way to go. But I do have concerns about retroactively having that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you can talk about — you can name the person who has been — where this agreement has been made, the congressmember, without naming ever the person who made the claim.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes. That’s absolutely true.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Ronickher, we want to thank you for being with us. Lawyer with Katz, Marshall & Banks, who has represented a number of congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress’s Office of Compliance. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, hundreds of people are facing up to 75 years in jail for protesting on J20, January 20th, Trump’s inauguration day. We will talk to one of the defendants and with a lawyer. Stay with us.

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