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

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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 Congressmember 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.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: 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.”

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I just want to say a few words before I get back to work. I know that I’ve let a lot of people down, 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, quote, “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,” Pelosi said. 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 left wing—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’re out of options.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., 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’s part of the legislative branch, and file what’s called for request for counseling. Counseling is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s 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 period—

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

ALEXIS RONICKHER: The civil action is not against the congressperson. It’s 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 the—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: Well, 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 kiss 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: So 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. But 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: And could you indicate to us 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 victim or person who’s 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 that.

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

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely.

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, you know, contemporaneously, when it happens, people? Can they tell their therapist, etc.?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: So, yes, let’s break this down. There’s a nondisclosure agreement that’s 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’s 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 that’s important, because that’s very isolating for the person, but it also prevents them from telling other people that they’re 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: Now, we’ve 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 it 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 there is no—at this point, the Office of Compliance has not broken down whether they are for discrimination, whether they’re for harassment or whether they’re 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 Representative Conyers, 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: Now, 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 didn’t 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.

And 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’s your career on the line, and no one believes you. And even—and if you decide to go public, it’s going to affect your career more than the person who harassed you. And so, that’s just very troubling.

But to speak about 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’s critical in this circumstance is that the settlements require strict confidentiality, that the statute outlines a way that they’re supposed to be paid, which is through this 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’ve been accused of sexual harassment. So members have now gone around that and have used their member allowance, which, you know, after carefully reviewing the statute, I believe is contrary to the statute.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, 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 then, 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’s been a settlement. And, you know, 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’re often very young. They’re 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, you know, 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: Well, a bipartisan resolution was introduced Friday in the House that would require all members, congressional staff, interns and fellows to receive anti-harassment, 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 is also legislation that is changing the law as it’s in place. What? It went into place in 1995? And 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. You know, if you look—for the last 20 years, private employers have used training and notifying employees how to report, and it hasn’t reduced sexual harassment. And it’s certainly not going to do that on the Hill. Is it a good step? It’s 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 TOO Congress bill that will revise the process. You know, 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. I mean, it really takes care of a lot of the systemic hurdles of the law. It’s 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 congressmembers?

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. You know, this is a point that lawmakers are still debating and, I have to say, I’m concerned about. You know, 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. You know, it is a concern for these individuals that once information comes out, that they will quickly be identified. And so, going forward, when someone—if someone knows that, I think that it absolutely is the right way to go. But I do have concerns about retroactively having that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, you can talk about—you can name the person who’s 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 the 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’ll talk to one of the defendants and with a lawyer. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Cryin’ in the Streets,” Muslim Indian-American singer Zeshan B singing here in our Democracy Now! studios. To see his full performance and interview, go to democracynow.org.

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