The Office of House Employment Counsel brokered a settlement in 2006 over allegations that Rep. Gregory Meeks fired a staffer in retaliation for reporting that she was sexually assaulted at a business tied to a campaign contributor, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.
The long-running lawsuit dealt with how the Office of House Employment Counsel (HEOC) was set up to offer limited protections to Capitol Hill staffers who suffered from harassment, and the New York Democrat argued the law established that the office should be financially liable in the suit and not him.
The HEOC uses taxpayer money to pay out financial settlements to resolve allegations of sexual abuse, discrimination and other workplace violations by members. It also binds the victims with tight secrecy clauses.
Andrea Payne, then a congressional aide in Meeks’ Queens office, filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance, and Meeks fired her weeks later. He admitted that the cause of her termination did not have to do with the quality of Payne’s work.
“This is an action to recover for damages sustained by plaintiff when Representative Meeks violated her Constitutional rights by retaliating against her, and ultimately terminating her employment, because of her sexual assault lawsuit,” Payne’s attorneys wrote.
The retaliation lawsuit wound through the system from 2000 to 2006, with Meeks’ office being represented by an assistant U.S. attorney. On March 27, 2006, the Office of House Employment Counsel became his sole lawyer. That same day, the judge entered a “stipulation of dismissal,” saying the parties had reached a settlement.
The U.S. Congress Office of Compliance uses taxpayer money to pay out financial settlements to resolve allegations of sexual abuse, discrimination and other workplace violations by members. It also binds the victims with tight secrecy clauses, which has triggered bipartisan outcry from feminists to conservative
Payne’s retaliation lawsuit dealt with how the Office of Compliance was set up to offer limited protections to Capitol Hill staffers. Meeks argued that the existence of the Office of Compliance meant that he should not be financially liable in the suit, according to legal documents.
Payne visited Flowers Physical Therapy for treatment in 2000 after she was injured in a car accident. It is owned by Neville Flowers, whose wife Joan “is an important campaign supporter and fundraiser for Representative Meeks,” the suit says.
The physical therapist working there sexually assaulted her, she claimed in legal documents. Payne pursued criminal charges against the employee, and a lawsuit against the company.
The day an article about the incident appeared in a Queens newspaper, “Joan Flowers came to Representative Meeks’ office in an agitated state and waved a copy of the article in the reception area while complaining loudly about its contents,” the suit says.
Meeks said “when he received complaints from one of his campaign contributors he must treat the matter very seriously” and told Payne he was not going to pay her for overtime work she had performed, the lawsuit says. Meeks and top staff began allegedly retaliating in other ways, such as refusing to reimburse Payne for expenses, verbally abusing her, removing files from her computer, and requiring her to work more unpaid overtime.
Payne filed a complaint with the Congressional Office of Compliance, which is in charge of enforcing labor laws. On Oct. 10, 2000, she wrote to the House Ethics Committee to say she believed the overtime issue was retaliation for her lawsuit against the donor’s company.
Less than two weeks later, Meeks fired her, saying “I just don’t feel that this is working,” the lawsuit alleges. An employee testified that the New York office manager “admitted to her that Ms. Payne was fired because she sent the letter to the House Ethics Committee.”
Meeks’ office then denied her unemployment insurance, saying she had quit voluntarily. Meeks’ then-chief of staff Jameel Johnson claimed “he thought he was required to state Ms. Payne had left ‘by mutual consent’ because of an agreement entered into during the Office of Compliance mediation process. However, no such agreement was ever entered into,” Payne’s lawyers wrote.
Meeks later said Payne was fired for writing a different letter to the Federal Election Commission flagging improprieties in his campaign finances. But “she did not even begin drafting the letter until after she was terminated from Representative Meeks’ office,” the lawsuit says.
The Office of Compliance’s “mediation period” brought no resolution, so Payne sued Meeks’ congressional office and Meeks personally for $7 million. The law that created the Office of Compliance, the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA), “prohibits retaliation against employees for the initiation of proceedings under the Act,” according to a judge’s summary of the complaint.
Meeks argued that the existence of the CAA meant that he should not be personally liable. Case law says holding an official personally liable wouldn’t be appropriate if there is “another remedy, equally effective in the view of Congress,” the judge summarized.
Meeks argued that “the CAA provides a remedy for her termination; and Congress intended that the remedial scheme established by the CAA be exclusive,” the judge said. He dismissed the claim against Meeks personally, and the lawsuit proceeded with taxpayer money at stake.
The criminal case resulted in the physical therapist being acquitted after the assistant district attorney assigned to the case was taken off it and replaced with a new lawyer who didn’t obtain her medical records in preparation, Payne told the Times-Ledger at the time. She told the paper the physical therapist, who she said attempted to insert his finger into her vagina, claimed he was treating a groin injury when her medical records would have shown her injuries were elsewhere.
But the lawsuit against Meeks’ office — which was flagged for TheDCNF by the National Legal and Policy Center — continued for years, resulting in significant quantities of testimony and discovery.
Meeks “requested that [the Office of House Employment Counsel] solely represent Defendant in this action,” in March 2006, and the U.S. Attorney’s office withdrew. The House attorney signed a settlement order with Payne’s lawyers.
Meeks’ spokesman Jordan Morris said the office had no comment on the settlement, but said that taxpayer-funded settlements can save money on extended litigation.
Victim advocates say the Office of Compliance forces victims to go through a slow and unsatisfying gauntlet and prevents voters of learning of members’ conduct. The judge in the Meeks case pointed out that Congress took an existing framework from the executive branch, the Civil Service Reform Act, and then took away some provisions designed to protect employees.
On Dec. 1, the Office of Compliance said it had paid out only one settlement in a case alleging sexual harassment by a member in the last five years. That case was $84,000 paid to a former employee of Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican. Farenthold agreed this week to repay the money with personal funds. The office also paid out five other settlements involving members’ offices, ranging from $5,200 to $150,000.
BuzzFeed News reported that Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, settled a complaint in 2014 with $27,000 in taxpayer money after a staffer filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance, alleging he fired her for refusing his sexual advances. The Office of Compliance paid about $100,000 to two male staffers in 2010 after they were allegedly sexually harassed by former Rep. Eric Massa, a New York Democrat, who resigned.