Congress needs to strengthen the transparency and accountability of its members use of taxpayer funds for sexual encounters and sexual harassment settlements. Photo credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images
Reports of long-time US House of Representative John Conyers (D-MI) settling a wrongful dismissal complaint filed by a woman who accused the Civil Rights icon of firing her for resisting his sexual advances are flying over the nation’s capital today. And as disturbing as these charges are, the fact that the settlement appears to have been paid out of taxpayer dollars makes the story even more unpalatable.
Pair that with the revelation the Congress has a settlement “slush fund,” to protect its membership in such cases and one has to consider what other heretofore unknown steps are written in the “code” to cover up the misdeeds of our elected officials. And how much that has cost the American taxpayers over the last decades.
One report even alleges Rep. Conyers was using taxpayer money to have his liaisons flown in to meet him in hotels and other venues. Such abuse of congressional funds would seem to be enough to have the Congressman facing prison time and disbarment. But does anyone actually believe that will happen?
And is it just the tip of the iceberg? One would suspect the misconduct of the members of Congress was the primary reason for setting up the settlement funding, so how long has this been going on and why has it been kept from the scrutiny of the public?
Moreover, former speaker Nancy Pelosi and former speaker John Boehner have denied any knowledge of the settlement or the accusations, so who is guarding the front doors of Congress while the government money is being handed out the back windows?
These allegations only have come to light in the wave of sexual assault stories coming from victims feeling empowered by a handful who decided to speak out against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and entertainment industry Harvey Weinstien. The sexual assault accusations, such as those leveled at Rep. Conyers, are damning enough, but perhaps the even more odious misuse of taxpayer money to pay for alleged sexual encounters or as hush money for those willing to speak out is even more disturbing.
And, at first glance, the procedure for the investigation of such issues appears to be geared to cover up the indiscretions instead of stopping their occurrences and punishing the violators. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced legislation designed to increase the transparency of such settlements, a welcome piece of legislation. Congress doesn’t have a Human Resources Department and relies on using the Office of Compliance (OOC) as the clearing house for such charges. Speier’s legislation seeks to force the OOC to publicly identify those members who enter into a settlement.
To me, that is a good step, but it doesn’t go far enough. Staff members on Rep. Conyers payroll have come forward saying many of them were aware of the indiscretions, but remained silent for fear of being “blackballed” by a long-standing house icon and having their own careers destroyed. Congress should move to protect the whistleblowers and give them an avenue to present their concerns without fear of reprisal.
Many already view the Congress as one of the “good-ole-boy” clubs that will spare no expense and integrity to protect its own. Being an elected official does not grant permission for unethical behavior. In fact, those officials should be held to an even higher standard of performance.
If these allegations bear out, Rep. Conyers should receive a harsh punishment for these violations, not a slap on the wrist from an ethics committee made of other members of the house. These are serious crimes and should be treated as such. Any less is a disservice to the nation’s taxpayers.