Exclusive: Taxpayers Paid $220K to Settle Case Involving Rep. Alcee Hastings

Former commission staffer alleged sexual harassment by Florida Democrat

Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings was accused of sexual misconduct by a former staff member of the Helsinki Commission. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Treasury Department paid $220,000 in a previously undisclosed agreement to settle a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment that involved Florida Democrat Alcee L. Hastings, according to documents obtained by Roll Call.

Winsome Packer, a former staff member of a congressional commission that promotes international human rights, said in documents that the congressman touched her, made unwanted sexual advances, and threatened her job. At the time, Hastings was the chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where Packer worked.

Hastings has called Packer’s charges “ludicrous” and in documents said he never sexually harassed her. 

“Until this evening, I had not seen the settlement agreement between the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and Ms. Packer,” the congressman said in a statement Friday night. “This matter was handled solely by the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment. At no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made.”

Hastings said that the lawsuit that Packer filed against him and an investigation by the House Ethics Committee were ultimately dismissed.

“I am outraged that any taxpayer dollars were needlessly paid to Ms. Packer,” he said. 

The 2014 payment to settle the case involving Hastings was not apparently included in a breakdown of payouts to settle discrimination complaints against House lawmakers from the past five years released last month by the Office of Compliance, which approves the payouts. That total included only one payment to resolve a sexual harassment claim — $84,000 paid to settle a complaint against Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold.

The Senate hasn’t released similar numbers.

Tortuous process

The settlement involving the accusations against Hastings raises new questions about the secretive and convoluted way Congress handles employee complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.

Lawmakers, inspired in part by recent allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and President Donald Trump, have launched an effort to revise the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act that lays out the process of reporting and responding to such complaints.

[Congress Took Three Decades to Come This Far, Sexual Harassment Victim Says]

A wave of harassment complaints has felled powerful figures in other industries in recent months and resulted in the resignations this week of two senior lawmakers, Reps. John Conyers Jr. , a Michigan Democrat, and Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken also announced he will be resigning “in the coming weeks.”

Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era

But lawmakers seeking to determine the extent of the problem in Congress have been unable to obtain basic information from the administrative offices that oversee House and Senate employees, including who among current members of Congress have been named in complaints.

Recent reports have indicated that lawmakers can bypass official congressional offices to resolve disputes. Conyers resigned this week after revelations that he had paid a staff member who had accused him of harassment $27,000 out of his office account.

Packer was considered a congressional employee under the law that established the commission where she worked.

Also called the Helsinki Commission, the body is made up of 21 members, 18 of whom are members of the House and Senate appointed by the leaders of their respective chambers. The other members represent the departments of State, Defense and Commerce and are appointed by the president.

[In Congress, Not Many Want to Say #MeToo]

Documents obtained by Roll Call indicate the OOC approved a $220,000 settlement to be paid to Packer by the Treasury Department, which issues payments to settle disputes involving lawmakers, according to documents obtained by Roll Call. Packer appears to have received a payment of that amount from the Treasury Department in May 2014, according to documents.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who was the chairman of the Helsinki Commission in 2014, referred a request for comment to the House and Senate employment offices.

Officials from the OOC did not immediately return requests for comment Friday. Nor did officials with the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment, which apparently handled the settlement for the Helsinki commission. 

Watch: Hill Sexual Misconduct Could Muddy 2018 Wave Potential

House lawmakers have said they are working on legislation that would ensure victims of harassment will not be barred from future employment in Congress and can discuss their cases if they want to. Lawmakers also want to ensure that future settlements are not paid by taxpayers.

“One case of sexual harassment is one case too many,” a spokeswoman for House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper said. “This is why it is so important for the Committee to conduct its extensive review of harassment and discrimination in the congressional workplace.”

Idealism dashed

Packer told Roll Call that she felt “blackballed” after her ordeal and has since struggled to find other employment.

“As an immigrant  who came here with all these ideals, it is like someone just removed all the foundations that I stood on in this country for all these years,” said Packer, who was born in Jamaica.

Packer was a former Republican Hill staffer who had lost her job when Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. She said in her lawsuit that Hastings, whom she knew through a friend, invited her to apply to the Helsinki Commission.

[Following Senate, House Mandates Sexual Harassment Training]

She was stationed in Vienna and was required to travel with Hastings to other foreign countries. She said in her lawsuit that Hastings repeatedly asked to stay at her apartment or to visit her hotel room. Packer also said he frequently hugged her, and once asked her what kind of underwear she was wearing.

She filed a complaint with the OOC in 2010 and sued Hastings and the commission in federal court in 2011.

Initially, she had been told that laws protecting congressional workers did not apply to commission staffers like her, according to court records and media reports.

Packer sued under a federal statute that allows individuals to seek damages against federal officials for violations of civil rights. But Hastings was dropped from the lawsuit in 2012, after he argued that the law didn’t apply to a member of Congress. The suit continued against the commission. 

The House Ethics Committee closed its investigation in December 2014. It interviewed eight witnesses and concluded that the most serious allegations against Hastings were “not supported by evidence” although he “did admit to certain conduct that was less than professional.” 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.