As Democratic and Republican leaders call on Democratic Rep. John Conyers to resign in the face of multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including one that led to a settlement, the office set up by Congress to handle sexual harassment and other workplace complaints says that it is barred by law from even acknowledging that settlement or where it came from.
Over the past two weeks, lawmakers and journalists have pressed for answers about the taxpayer-funded operations of the Office of Compliance (OOC), and why it is that so little information is publicly available about the public offices whose complaints it addresses.
Despite a week of emails back and forth between the office and BuzzFeed News, the OOC could not point to any provision explicitly barring the office from publishing an office-by-office breakdown of claims made on Capitol Hill. In fact, the OOC already publishes more information than it is required to by law in its annual report, and a spokesperson would not explain why they argue that same law prevents them from providing additional transparency that the OOC currently lacks.
Instead, the OOC takes the position that its secrecy — across the board — is required under law.
“The Congressional Accountability Act requires that the OOC maintain the confidentiality of contacts and claims filed with the office that do not result in a final decision,” OOC Outreach and Publications Manager Laura Cech told BuzzFeed News in an email. “The OOC cannot comment on whether matters have or have not been filed with the office.”
The OOC would not say whether the money in the Conyers settlement came out of a special fund established under law by the Treasury. “The OOC can’t confirm or deny the settlement you reported,” Cech wrote. The OOC also takes the position that it cannot, for the reason of confidentiality, publish an office-by-office breakdown of the settlements paid out with taxpayer money. Earlier Thursday, ABC News reported that close to $100,000 out of the fund went to settle sex harassment claims brought by two male former staffers of Eric Massa, a former member of the House who resigned in 2010. The OOC would not confirm the settlement information to ABC News.
In a report published each year, the OOC details some statistical information about claims brought to it, a requirement by law, though the amount of information the office includes has changed over time. The report provides no information about how many formal complaints are filed by employees of the House or Senate, and no information about what settlements are reached with employees of the House or Senate.
It is true that the CAA provides confidentiality for parts of the process. That first stage of initiating proceedings (a request for counseling) and the second step (mediation) “shall be strictly confidential,” per the law. Additionally, once a formal complaint has been filed, “all proceedings and deliberations” of hearing officers and appeals to the board are to be confidential. At the end of the process, apparently referenced by Cech, the law requires the board to make public certain types of "final decisions" of hearing officers or the board, but also allows the board to choose to make public any others.
It is not clear, however, where OOC draws the lines on its secrecy in instances that fall between initial proceedings and the final decisions, and whether there is any legal backing for it.
When asked, specifically, if OOC takes the position the law stops them from releasing office-by-office settlement information, Cech only pointed to the part of the CAA that describes what must be included in the annual report.
That section of the law says that OOC is required to:
“compile and publish statistics on the use of the Office by covered employees, including the number and type of contacts made with the Office, on the reason for such contacts, on the number of covered employees who initiated proceedings with the Office under this Act and the result of such proceedings, and on the number of covered employees who filed a complaint, the basis for the complaint, and the action taken on the complaint.”
The OOC, however, always has included more information than that in its annual reports — so it’s not clear how the office can say that the same requirements for what must be included in the report are also limitations on what can be included in the report.
For example, every year’s report includes the number of employees who initiate proceedings under the OOC broken by entity — detailing the number of employees of the House, Senate, Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol, or other entities who did so each year. That specificity is not required by the law — and relates to information from a part of the process before a "final decision" is reached — but it has been included in all of the reports.
Further still, OOC Executive Director Susan Tsui Grundmann acknowledged earlier this month that OOC could release additional information beyond what is required by the statistics provision of the law. "Nothing in this subparagraph requires the Office to release award and settlement figures referenced in [fund provision] of the CAA," she wrote in a letter that nonetheless provided a list of the total number and amounts of awards and settlements disbursed each year since the CAA’s passage. Those settlement figures were included in five years of the annual reports, as well, although no settlement information was included in the two most recent annual reports produced by the OOC. Cech did not respond to a request for comment on why that was so.
It is not clear why OOC believes it has the authority to provide breakout numbers for House and Senate and the Capitol Police, for example, in its reports on the requests for counseling but chooses not to do so for the other stages of the process: mediation, formal complaint, settlement, or final decision. It’s also not clear why OOC does not provide a more specific breakout by congressional office for its reports.
Asked where OOC would point to in the law for the claim by Cech that office-by-office breakdowns "would violate the confidentiality required by the CAA,“ Cech only repeated the statement: “The Congressional Accountability Act requires that the OOC maintain the confidentiality of contacts and claims filed with the office that do not result in a final decision.”
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.