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Steller column: Grijalva's $48,000 settlement raises accountability issues
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Steller column: Grijalva's $48,000 settlement raises accountability issues

Rep. Raúl Grijalva would like you to know he has not been accused of sexual harassment.

He’s right, as far as I know.

These days, that may seem to be all that matters, but it’s not.

The congressman’s assertion of innocence came in response to a story published Tuesday by the Washington Times. The story said a woman who worked for Grijalva in Washington, D.C., stayed on the job for just three months in 2015, then threatened to sue because he was frequently drunk and there was a hostile workplace environment.

Grijalva’s office stopped paying the woman, who is unnamed in the story, in an effort to force a settlement, the Times reported. She was quickly replaced but continued to receive a salary for five months as a severance settlement. Total additional compensation: $48,395.

Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, has not disputed these details of the story, although spokesman Adam Sarvana said he is constrained by the confidentiality of the settlement. Grijalva has asked that the confidentiality be lifted so that he can discuss it, Sarvana said.

That’s good, because that is the way toward greater accountability on Capitol Hill.

One problem the story highlights is how Congress quietly uses taxpayer money to pay off people who accuse members of sexual harassment or other mistreatment, payoffs often made by padding or extending the employees’ paychecks. This came to light after settlements of sexual harassment complaints against Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, were published Nov. 20 by Buzzfeed News.

The Office of Compliance reported paying $17.2 million over the last 21 years in settlements that were largely secret, sometimes structured to be paid out like salaries, rather than in more detectable lump sums. Not all were for sexual harassment, though, and not all involved complaints against members of Congress.

In Grijalva’s case, the congressman pointed out not just that he was not accused of sexual harassment, but also that the settlement did not involve the Office of Compliance, which is the heart of today’s controversies. In a statement, he described the situation this way:

“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. 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,” he continued. As the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva oversees the taxpayer-funded budget of the committee’s Democrats.

The other problem is the allegation of drunkenness. This is an accusation that has dogged Grijalva not just for years but for decades. In 1985, while he was a member of the Tucson Unified School District board, Grijalva was convicted of DUI for driving under the influence.

“Whatever personal frailty I have drinking, it’s something I have to deal with and come to grips with,” he said at the time.

Grijalva won his seat in Congress in 2002 and has been regularly rumored to have appeared in public drunk. He is known as a regular at the Tune Inn, a bar near the Capitol. A 2010 story in the Huffington Post, about the vote to pass the Affordable Care Act, opened this way: “Raúl Grijalva is sitting quietly with a few of his staffers at one end of the bar, a bottle of Bud and a shot of whiskey in front of him, while his fellow Democratic members of the House of Representatives roar in celebration at the other end.”

That’s not evidence of a problem that affects taxpayers, and I can’t say I have seen him verifiably drunk at any events. But when taxpayer money is used to settle complaints of drunkenness, it becomes our business.

Grijalva, for his part, made a sort of denial when I asked Sarvana about whether he has gone to work drunk.

“I do not attend work-related events drunk, and I have never created a hostile work environment in my offices — all of which is verifiable by those who work with me,” Grijalva said in a written statement.

Grijalva’s office learned of the planned Washington Times story on Nov. 21, when the reporter emailed the spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee, Sarvana told me. The initial email said the story was about an accusation of sexual harassment, though the eventual story was not. Instead, it placed Grijalva’s payout in the context of others that did involve complaints of sexual harassment.

The next day, Nov. 22, Grijalva was interviewed on C-SPAN. Asked about the secret settlements of sexual harassment complaints against Conyers, Grijalva said Conyers should step down from his leadership position and that sexual-harassment settlements should be made public.

But he carefully distinguished those settlements from other accusations of workplace misbehavior, saying those should not necessarily be revealed to the public.

“Dealing with employee issues is difficult,” he said. “Settlements occur in Congress all the time. Few members have not gone through that.”

When a member has made a settlement of sexual-harassment claims, “I think that kind of information needs to at some point be public and noted,” Grijalva said.

But, he went on, “Other claims that occur, to the benefit of both the employee and the employer, so that those individuals can go on and continue to work in an environment that is more conducive to their capacities, that might be a different matter.”

Why should it, though? When it is taxpayer money that is being used to settle these disagreements, and when the accusation may involve behavior such as at-work drunkenness, that reflects on the congressman’s ability to do his job.

Sexual harassment may seem to be all that matters as controversy swirls around congressional settlements of complaints, but it’s not.

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