Here's How Congress Hides Its Sexual Harassment Problem and Protects the Members Responsible

| NOV 21, 2017 | 6:03 PM

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A new story from BuzzFeed News outlines shocking allegations against longtime Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) — even more shocking, though, is the process that kept those allegations hidden.

Just one week after Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) began calling for reforms to the secretive process that has paid out more than $15 million in harassment settlements in just 20 years, we now know more about how this process works.

In total, the process can result in a staffer spending an additional ninety days working with their harasser. More details were laid out in Buzzfeed's reporting on Rep. Conyers and the current system for pursuing sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill:

In this case, one of Conyers’ former employees was offered a settlement, in exchange for her silence, that would be paid out of Conyers’ taxpayer-funded office budget. His office would “rehire” the woman as a “temporary employee” despite her being directed not to come into the office or do any actual work, according to the document. The complainant would receive a total payment of $27,111.75 over the three months, after which point she would be removed from the payroll, according to the document.

The process also sees harassers given legal representation at no cost through the House counsel's office, while victims are forced to fund their own representation. Even more concerning is the detail that interns and fellows working in Congressional offices can't use this process to pursue claims.

Victims are forced to sign confidentiality agreements and perpetrators are not required to admit fault. All in all, the system seems to have been created with the goal of protecting congress — not protecting victims.

“It is a designed cover-up,” said Matthew Peterson, a law clerk who represented Conyers' accuser. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”

One former Conyers staffer spoke with Buzzfeed and aired concerns that the secretive process prevents victims from warning other potential victims:

“I don’t think any allegations should be buried...and that’s for anyone, not just for this particular office, because it doesn’t really allow other people to see who these individuals are,” said the former staffer. “When you make private settlements, it doesn’t warn the next woman or the next person going into that situation.”

Not only where other staffers not made aware of any problem, some of the biggest names in Congress avoided knowledge of the situation. Both then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told Buzzfeed they weren't aware of the settlement.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) recently introduced legislation that would overhaul the existing system to make it more friendly towards victims and easier to navigate. Because the current system is so daunting, it is believed that many instances of sexual harassment in Congress go unreported.