Hoyer: Review harassment rules

In the midst of the unfolding Eric Massa scandal, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has asked three entities charged with internal congressional issues to work together to strengthen harassment protections for staffers who feel their rights have been violated.

"I strongly urge the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to immediately undertake whatever actions it believes will empower House employees to report alleged inappropriate behavior in their offices swiftly and without fear of professional or personal retribution," Hoyer wrote in a Wednesday letter to Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the chairman and ranking member of the ethics committee, respectively.

In similar letters to the Office of Compliance — which has received at least two complaints of sexual harassment against Massa — and the House Administration Committee, Hoyer has asked for a review of current harassment reporting practices and recommendations for improvements to the current system.

Massa resigned from the House on March 5, after POLITICO reported that he had been accused of having inappropriate physical contact with aides.

It was Hoyer who first brought the matter to the attention of the ethics committee in February by insisting that Massa's office contact the panel when he learned of the allegations.

The Office of Compliance, created by the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, is designed to handle workplace harassment and discrimination issues — but it has no mandate to advertise its existence and many aides say the combination of a fear of retribution and lack of awareness of the proper place to make a claim prevents allegations of harassment or other abuse from being reported.

Hoyer addressed that in his letter to the Compliance Office.

"Most employees probably do not know the Office of Compliance even exists, defeating the Office’s purpose," he wrote. "Therefore, I recommend that the Office of Compliance collaborate with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to immediately educate all House staff, including district employees, about the respective functions of these two bodies and how they serve and protect employees when their workplace rights have been violated."

Hoyer is open to increasing the funding for the Office of Compliance and the related committees that deal with harassment issues, according to his office.

“He’s committed to a strong and effective ethics process, so of course he would want to ensure that they have the appropriate and necessary resources they need to do their work,” spokeswoman Katie Grant told POLITICO.

Hoyer’s letters signal the potential beginning of a significant overhaul in the way congressional offices deal with reports of harassment.

Among the Democrat’s proposals: the creation of an immediate education program through the Ethics Committee that would alert House staffers to the existence of Office of Compliance and a review of whether current procedures for reporting harassment allegations are working.

Hoyer also proposed that New Member Orientation for lawmakers include a mandatory session on workplace laws and regulations – clearly spelling out the rights a lawmaker must afford his staff.

Senior employees would receive training every two years stressing that harassment allegations should not be treated as an internal matter. A similar session would be added for regular House aide training, Hoyer suggested in his letter to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

In the case of Massa’s office, the congressman’s chief of staff tried for months to handle staffers’ allegations internally by protecting them from the congressman. However, the harassment continued, according to reports.

The Office of Compliance deals with harassment allegations through a system that involves a counseling session and potential mediation period between the staffer and the alleged harasser. If an agreement cannot be reached through mediation, the case can proceed to federal court, where it becomes public record.

However, very few cases make it beyond the mediation period, which is anonymous, and the cases often result in a monetary settlement for the aide. In the past, staffers have been given retro-active raises, promotions, vacation time and other perks, according to lawyers who have worked on Office of Compliance mediations.

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