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A House committee is finally investigating the sexual harassment settlement fund

The House Ethics Committee wants the Office of Compliance to turn over its records.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29:  Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) participate in a markup hearing before the House Judiciary Committee March 29, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a markup hearing on H.Res.184, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President and directing the Attorney General to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to communications with the government of Russia; and H.Res.203, Resolution of inquiry requesting the President, and directing the Attorney General, to transmit, respectively, certain documents to the House of Representatives relating to certain communications by the President of the United States.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Committee Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Ethics Committee is trying to shed some light on Congress’s practice of paying out secret settlements to victims of sexual harassment and other workplace offenses.

Three weeks after Rep. Jackie Speier told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the House of Representative had paid out millions to victims of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, the Ethics Committee has launched an investigation into the Office of Compliance. In addition, the chair of the House Administration Committee — who, along with the ranking member, approves settlement payments for harassment — announced Friday that he will release more specific information about which settlements were paid out for which offense. Following that announcement, the committee released settlement data dating back to 2013.

This means that some details on Congress’s sexual harassment problem, which the settlements have largely kept under wraps, could end up becoming public — though the names of those accused or paid will remain secret.

The Office of Compliance was created in 1995 as a part of the Congressional Accountability Act, an attempt by Congress to enforce 12 federal laws within the legislative branch, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which governs sexual harassment.

As I’ve written previously, the CAA also created “an account of the Office in the Treasury on the United States for the payment of awards and settlements” — a taxpayer-funded settlement account to which money is added only when a settlement is reached — and since 1997, more than $15 million has been paid out.

But the payments — and the offices that initiated them — have been kept secret from voters (and potential employees). And if the payments were made from the members’ own budget, there’s no approval process at all.

As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner has reported, there’s no legal requirement for the Office of Compliance to keep secret which offices have paid settlements. In fact, the OOC itself issued a document November 13 saying that there is no nondisclosure requirement for individuals who file a claim under the CAA.

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