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Gardner signs onto bill to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for sexual harassment settlements

Author: Jessica Machetta - December 15, 2017 - Updated: December 19, 2017

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GardnerRepublican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado speaks at a town hall on Aug. 15 at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs. (Photo by James Wooldridge/The Colorado Springs Gazette)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., might not agree on much, but they do agree taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay settlements for sexual harassment claims against lawmakers.

Gardner, Gillibrand and Texas Republican Ted Cruz are co-sponsoring a bill that would correct a 20-year oversight that leaves taxpayers on the hook for misconduct by elected officials, they announced in a Thursday press release.

Four members of Congress are now stepping down amid allegations of sexual harassment: Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

Farenthold reportedly used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a harassment claim in 2014; and Conyers is accused of using $27,000 in public funds to settle a former staffer’s claim against him.

Such payouts are legal, though unintentionally so, under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which was written to hold lawmakers to the same anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws private employers are held to. The same law allows for a veil of secrecy over the process.

That veil would be lifted under legislation introduced Thursday by Gardner and others. The bill would overhaul the entire process that victims of harassment must go through when reporting a claim against a member of Congress and eliminate the use of taxpayer funds to pay out those claims, according to Gardner’s office.

“Sexual harassment and workplace misconduct has no place in America, and certainly has no place in the United States Congress,” Gardner said in a statement.

The Congressional Harassment Reform Act would extend protections to interns and fellows, eliminate forced mediation, end the current required secrecy in the process by allowing victims to speak publicly about their case. It would also require members of Congress found personally liable for harassment to pay settlements out of their own pockets.

“Over the past few months, our country has experienced a much-needed transformation when it comes to listening to courageous women share their stories about harassment,” Gardner said in a statement. “No one should be forced to work in an environment where they are made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated.”

Co-sponsors Gillibrand and Cruz say Congress should not be above the law or allowed to play by a different set of rules.

“In recent months, we’ve seen wave after wave of appalling sexual harassment and assault allegations — from Hollywood, to newsrooms, to the halls of Congress,” Cruz said in a statement. “And powerful men who have abused their positions have been held to account.”

Jessica Machetta