Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) found himself in the spotlight when The Washington Times reported Monday that he arranged for the payment of more than $48,000 in taxpayer funds toward a “severance package” — for a former staffer who threatened to slap him with a hostile workplace lawsuit back in 2015.
The publication revealed that an attorney charged with advising members of the House of Representatives on employment issues negotiated a $48,395 payout for the former senior staffer of Grijalva’s that equaled five months of her salary. The employee received the settlement when she left the congressman’s office after spending three months on the job in exchange for dropping her lawsuit, which alleged Grijalva frequently was drunk and created a hostile work environment.
After the staffer hired a lawyer and threatened him with a lawsuit, the congressman reportedly ceased paying her in an effort to force her to come to the negotiating table, Tucson.com reported.
“On the advice of House Employment Counsel, I provided a severance package to a former employee who resigned. The severance did not involve the Office of Compliance and at no time was any allegation of sexual harassment made, and no sexual harassment occurred,” Grijalva said in a statement to The Washington Times.
“Under the terms of the agreement, had there been an allegation of sexual harassment, the employee would have been free to report it,” Grijalva added. “Regrettably, for me to provide any further details on this matter would violate the agreement.”
The Washington Times reported that the settlement with Grijalva’s former employee may have violated House rules that prohibit a member of Congress from retaining “an employee who does not perform duties for the offices of the employing authority commensurate with the compensation such employee receives.”
On Tuesday, Grijalva lashed out at The Times and demanded an apology from the newspaper, though without denying the veracity of what it had reported.
“Last week, the Washington Times contacted me seeking comment on what it described as a sexual harassment claim that, in fact, had never been made,” Grijalva said in the statement, Tucson.com reported. “Once the paper realized its original story was probably false, staff regrouped over the holidays and decided to run a misleading article trying to link me to sexual harassment complaints made against other people.”
“The fact is that an employee and I, working with the House Employment Counsel, mutually agreed on terms for a severance package, including an agreement that neither of us would talk about it publicly,” Grijalva added. “The terms were consistent with House Ethics Committee guidance. The severance funds came out of my committee operating budget. Every step of the process was handled ethically and appropriately.”
Grijalva maintained that “the terms were consistent with House Ethics Committee guidance,” saying that The Washington Times “owes me an apology.”
The misuse of taxpayer dollars to quietly pay off people accusing members of Congress of sexual misconduct and other indiscretions came to the forefront of national discourse earlier in November when reports revealed that taxpayers funded the more than $15 million used for a variety of harassment settlements on Capitol Hill from 1997 to 2016.
“It seems like all of these House bodies are designed to help cover for members of Congress,” Melanie Sloan, an ethics lawyer based in Washington, told The Times. “A large part of the problem is that each member of Congress can treat their staff as their own fiefdom and also know that it will remain silent.”
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) faced pressure to resign after BuzzFeed reported last week that he paid a former employee more than $27,000 out of his office fund in 2015 to settle her complaint, which alleged she was fired for refusing to “succumb to [Conyers’] sexual advances.”
Although Conyers has refused to resign amid mounting allegations, the House’s current longest-serving member did step from his position as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday.