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The U.S. Senate needs to clean up its own house when it comes to sexual harassment charges, regardless of whether Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore wins his Dec. 12 election, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt has argued.
Some Senate Republicans, including Blunt have not endorsed Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl and several other teenagers, saying it’s up to Alabama voters whether to choose him or Democrat Doug Jones. Others, including President Donald Trump, are backing Moore.
The election comes amid fallout of sexual misconduct claims against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who announced his resignation on Dec. 7, and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who stepped down on Dec. 5.
Blunt said he and a few colleagues are trying to address sexual harassment procedures for charges against members of Congress because "we need to be sure that we’ve got an environment where people want to come and be a part of that."
"In the current law, if you report harassment, you’re the one that has to go into 20 hours of counseling before you can decide whether you were really harassed or not," Blunt said on Meet the Press on Nov. 19, 2017. "That’s just totally inappropriate."
That seemed like an uncommon rule, so we wanted to dig into Blunt’s claim.
Reporting harassment in Congress
The standards for investigating employees and members of Congress is a lot different from ones laid out for the public in other states, and the process has come under scrutiny as allegations in Hollywood, politics and journalism have piled up.
Congress’ rules for handling sexual harassment allegations are under the spotlight after reporting by The Washington Post and others found lawmakers essentially write their own rules for handling claims. Some lawmakers are working to fix their own workplace culture.
The Post reported the story of a 19-year-old intern who said she was the victim of sexual misconduct but did not report it for fear of losing her job.
The Post also shed light on another unique rule for reporting sexual harassment on Capitol Hill: The confidential payouts in settlements come from a special U.S. Treasury fund supported by tax dollars.
Any member or employee of Congress who reports a violation of the Congressional Accountability Act (including sexual harassment) must go through mandatory steps to file a claim. This is known as the Dispute Resolution Process.
Blunt’s statement addresses the first step: counseling. The person reporting sexual harassment must request counseling with the Office of Compliance within 180 days of the alleged harassment.
According to the posted procedures, the counseling period normally lasts 30 days. But it may be reduced at the request of the employee.
In Blunt’s statement, he said the counseling process takes 20 hours. We were unable to confirm the number of counseling hours each person receives during the 30-day period.
When we asked Blunt’s office, spokesperson Katie Boyd pointed us to the Office of Compliance.
Laura Cech, the outreach and publications coordinator for the Office of Compliance, did not specify whether Blunt was correct in saying 20 hours. She responded with a Q&A the office developed Nov. 13 outlining what they see as "the most common misconceptions" from the media about the process. The first question is about the required "counseling" — but it does not include how the 30-day process translates into hours.
A counselor will "discuss with an employee the information that gave rise to their concerns, and inform them of their rights under the law," the document says. It also notes the counseling can be completed over the phone or through a designated representative, such as an attorney.
Remaining steps continue after counseling if the employee still believes he or she has been sexually harassed.
The steps include a 30-day mediation where both parties are allowed the opportunity to resolve the dispute, administrative hearing or civil action, and the appeals process where the employee can request the final decision be reviewed by the OOC Board of Directors.
Sandy Davidson, a professor at the University of Missouri who teaches law in the journalism school, said, "The rules are bizarre and totally unfriendly to women."
Davidson also noted the confidentiality aspect of the laws. The rules say all statements, communications and documents during the mediation process are confidential.
In Missouri, you can file a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which investigates complaints in public accommodations about race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability, age and familial status.
There is no requirement for counseling. Once the complaint is filed, the commission investigates by interviewing both sides. If the investigator finds discrimination, the commission attempts to settle the case. If the case is not settled, a hearing process gives a final decision and determines whether remedies such as back pay, reinstatement or promotion are ordered.
Blunt said, "In the current law, if you report harassment, you’re the one that has to go into 20 hours of counseling before you can decide whether you were really harassed."
According to the Office of Compliance, any employee or member of Congress must go through counseling for a 30-day period before they can continue with further steps of reporting the harassment.
However, we were unable to find evidence detailing how many hours the 30-day period includes.
Blunt’s statement is on the right track but needs further clarification with the "hours" claim.
We rate it Half True.
Roy Blunt Twitter account, video, Nov. 19, 2017
Sandy Davidson, email interview, Nov. 27, 2017
Katie Boyd, email interview, Dec. 1, 2017
Tammy Cavender, email interview, Dec. 1, 2017
Office of Compliance website, "Dispute Resolution Process - Filing a Claim," 2015
Department of Labor website, "Sex Discrimination and Harassment," 2017
Washington Post article, "On Capitol Hill, pressure grows for more transparency in harassment cases," Nov. 27, 2017
Washington Post article, "How Congress plays by different rules on sexual harassment and misconduct," Oct. 27, 2017
Office of Compliance statement, "Correcting the record: Filing claims with the OCC," Nov. 13, 2017
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