The House Ethics Committee has formally sanctioned two members — GOP Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen (Nev.) — over sexual harassment-related allegations, the latest sign that fallout from #MeToo movement continues to be felt on Capitol Hill.
Meadows was found to have violated House rules “by failing to take appropriate steps to ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination.” This case grew out of an investigation into Meadows’ former chief of staff, Kenny West. Meadows kept West on his payroll even after learning of credible harassment allegations against the former aide. At one point, Meadows ordered West not to interact with women staffers, a move the Ethics Committee criticized in its report as risking “unequal treatment.” Meadows will have to pay more than $40,000 to cover the cost of West’s salary.
POLITICO first reported the allegations against Meadows and West.
Kihuen, who announced his retirement as the #MeToo movement swept Capitol Hill last year, was found to have “made persistent and unwanted advances towards women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.”
Both lawmakers were reproved by the bipartisan Ethics Committee, the least serious form of punishment it can mete out.
Meadows is chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and he has been mentioned as potential ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the next Congress, although the Ethics Committee’s action could prove troublesome on that front.
In a statement, Meadows said he was glad the investigation was over, and he noted that he had first asked for an Ethics Committee review in Nov. 2015. However, the Office of Congressional Ethics had already begun its own probe into sexual harassment allegations against West by that time.
“Three years ago I asked the Committee on Ethics to review the matter surrounding the alleged conduct of my former chief of staff, Mr. West, and I’m thankful their review has now concluded,” Meadows said. “I appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment of the immediate, appropriate, and good faith steps I did take after learning of my staff’s concerns – including immediately separating the chief from the accusers so they never had to interact with him personally during the independent investigation.
West was hired by Meadows as chief of staff in Jan. 2013, shortly after Meadows won a seat in Congress. Meadows said he was not made aware of any harassment allegations against West until Oct. 2014, although aides told investigators West’s improper, troubling behavior began shortly after he was hired. This included “unwanted touching,” “inappropriate staring” and “unprofessional comments” about women in Meadows’ Washington and North Carolina offices.
Beginning in Oct. 2014, multiple women staffers in Meadows’ office complained to him about West, the Ethics Committee states. Meadows responded by barring West from interacting with all female staffers, although Meadows left him in as chief of staff. Meadows also asked Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to help with an “independent investigation” into the incident. A Gowdy aide who looked into the matter said West should be fired, according to the Ethics Committee report. It wasn’t until then-Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office got involved in early 2015 that West was fired, although Meadows kept him on as a senior adviser making the same salary.
POLITICO raised questions in Sept. 2015 about a lump-sum payment made to West by Meadows’ office that year. The Office of Congressional Ethics began an investigation. At that point, Meadows reported the issue himself to the Ethics Committee.
The Ethics Committee noted that the “Code of Official Conduct provides that Members may not retain an employee who does not perform duties for the employing office commensurate with the compensation the employee receives. When Mr. West was demoted to Senior Advisor, his pay remained the same but the Committee found little evidence of official work that he completed during that time. Thus, the Committee found that his duties as Senior Advisor were not commensurate with his pay.”
While noting that there was “little and inconsistent guidance on severance payments available to the House community at the time,” Meadows did not seek any guidance from the Ethics Committee about West or whether such payments would be allowed. Thus the Ethics Committee found Meadows would be personally responsible for reimbursing the Treasury for some of the funds paid to West.
An aide said, “Rep. Meadows will pay back the severance in full.”
“Representative Meadows’ failure to take prompt and decisive action to deal with the alleged sexual harassment in his congressional office was troubling to the Committee,” the report states. “The Committee found Representative Meadows violated House rules by failing to take appropriate steps to ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination.”
The report added: “In addition, the Committee is concerned that Representative Meadows’ ‘solution’ to the sexual harassment allegations, to cut off all contact between Mr. West and most of his female employees, caused another potential problem. An environment where only male staff have access to the Chief of Staff risks unequal treatment of employees based solely on sex.”
Kihuen, who was only elected in 2016, saw his congressional career quickly ended following media reports that he had sexually harassed at least three women, including during his time as a state legislator in Nevada.
According to the Ethics Committee, the Nevada Democrat made repeated sexual advances to one of his campaign aides. This included “the touching of her thigh on two occasions, comments on how she looked, suggestions that Representative Kihuen would take her out if she did not work for him, a suggestion that she and Representative Kihuen should get a hotel room together, and questions regarding whether she would ever cheat on her boyfriend.”
A Nevada lobbyist told congressional investigators that Kihuen “made unwanted physical and verbal advances towards her including, among other things, sliding his hand under her dress and onto her thigh, grabbing her buttocks, messages asking her to come and sit on his lap, asking her what color her panties were, suggesting she would look good naked, and messages suggesting, through the use of emojis, that they make a sex tape together.”
During an interview with by the Ethics Committee, Kihuen denied the allegations. However, the panel did not believe those denials, according to its report.
“Despite Representative Kihuen’s denials, each of the complainant’s allegations were supported by documentary evidence and some of the alleged incidents were corroborated by third party witnesses,” the report states. “Furthermore, at least two outside entities were made aware of Campaign Staffer and D.C. Firm Employee’s allegations and approached Representative Kihuen, and his campaign, about his behavior in 2016 and 2017.”
Kihuen announced his retirement in Dec. 2017, after Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats demanded he resign from office.
Kihuen on Friday said he didn’t agree with everything in the report but apologized to the women.
“After much reflection and introspection, I recognize that regardless of the fact that I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable or disrespected, what matters is how my actions were perceived by the women who came forward,” he said in a statement. “It saddens me greatly to think I made any woman feel that way due to my own immaturity and overconfidence. I extend my sincere apologies to each of these women. Though I do not agree with aspects of the Report, I am thankful the Committee afforded everyone an opportunity to be heard and appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment that I fully cooperated with the investigation.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine