The sexual harassment case against U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, whose district includes parts of Bastrop and Caldwell counties, took on new life Thursday as a House committee unanimously voted to launch a new investigation into allegations that he made explicit remarks to a former aide and retaliated against her for complaining.
The move comes six days after revelations that he had settled a lawsuit the aide brought against him with $84,000 of taxpayer money.
Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, said in a statement that he’s “relieved” the House Ethics Committee is looking into the matter. “This investigation increases the transparency the public deserves and what I’ve wanted since the beginning.”
Still, despite what appears to be a sea change in how Congress responds to sexual harassment cases — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., announced this week they’re stepping down amid sexual misconduct allegations and a groundswell of opposition from their colleagues — the reaction to Farenthold has been muted.
The only GOP lawmaker who has called on Farenthold to resign is Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., according to one of her top aides in an interview with Politico. Comstock is a member of the House Administration Committee and has become a leader among female House members to change the administrative system she says punishes victims of sexual abuse.
The new climate even forced veteran U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, to announce last week that he would not run for re-election after a nude photo and sexually charged text messages were exposed online. Barton had not been accused of nonconsensual behavior.
Farenthold is the only lawmaker in the last five years to have used a little-known House fund to settle a sexual harassment case. He said Monday that he would pay back the Treasury with his own money although he insisted that he is innocent.
“I have agreed to repay the amount of the settlement,” he said. “Make no mistake, this repayment is not an admission of guilt. I am making it for several reasons: I believe the current system that requires taxpayers to fund secret settlements must be fixed. I cannot be an effective advocate to fix this problem with people saying I benefited from it.” He also said he was advised by attorneys to use the House fund since the suit was against his congressional office and not him personally.
Conyers used his congressional office funds to pay a former staffer over $27,000 after she filed a complaint saying that he had propositioned her and touched her. There has not been any settlement involving Franken, who is accused of groping and inappropriately touching several women.
To House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, who like Conyers is African-American, there appeared to be a double standard when it came to the way House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., responded to the settlements. Ryan called for Conyers’ resignation, while he called for Farenthold to pay back the money.
“I’m a little bit interested, though, in why the speaker of the House called for his resignation and had been radio silent on Blake Farenthold,” Clyburn said this week. “His settlement was three times what Conyers’ was. He’s accused of the same thing. And the speaker has not said a word. What is the difference?”
To Ryan, at least, the difference is that Farenthold’s case was dismissed in 2015 by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which recommends which cases to refer to the House Ethics Committee for investigation.
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong told the American-Statesman that, “the speaker has made clear any report of sexual harassment is deeply troubling, and those who feel mistreated or violated deserve to have their stories taken seriously. In this instance, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics investigated this claim and unanimously voted to dismiss it. Still, there are important questions to answer, including the use of taxpayer dollars for settlements. We will continue our efforts to reform this settlement system.”
The House Ethics Committee, for its part, is reviewing all sexual harassment cases and settlements, including Farenthold’s, and, according to Politico, is trying to reach Farenthold’s accuser, Lauren Greene, through her attorney to have her appear before the panel.
On Thursday, the House Administration Committee held a hearing to consider changes to the law that governs settlements — and requires confidentiality — and in a video statement issued at the time of the hearing Ryan spoke out about the outcry over sexual harassment as a “watershed moment.”
“Congress needs better policies in place to protect women, and quite frankly, a real culture change,” Ryan said. “We want to identify what reforms are needed to change the way things work.”