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Ethics panel raps Meadows over handling of harassment complaints against top aide

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, shown in a Lightning file photo, was criticized in a House Ethics Committee report for his handling of sexual harassment complaints against his chief of staff. U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, shown in a Lightning file photo, was criticized in a House Ethics Committee report for his handling of sexual harassment complaints against his chief of staff.

The House Ethics Committee sanctioned U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows and ordered him to reimburse the government $42,000 in a case rising from sexual harassment complaints against the congressman's chief of staff, Kenny West.

 

The Office of Congressional Ethics had initiated an investigation in 2015 into West's conduct and Meadows' handling of the case, including a severance payment he authorized for West. In a referral it made to the committee in March 2016, the OCE said female employees had told investigators about "unwanted touching, inappropriate staring and unprofessional comment" by West, an insurance agent from Clay County who was one of eight candidates running in a Republican primary for the newly redrawn congressional seat in 2012.

“Making sure my team feels safe and secure in our office is the highest priority for me and I’m truly sorry for any stress this situation caused them," Meadows said in a statement reported by the Raleigh News&Observer. "I thank the Ethics Committee for their work in resolving this, and my office will remain committed to serving western North Carolinians every day to the best of our ability." The report, 39 pages long with 266 footnotes, was made public on Friday.

After the complaints came out, Meadows demoted West to senior advisor and barred him from having contact with female employees but continued paying him his full salary. While Meadows had the "discretion to change the terms and conditions" of West's employment, the House Code of Official Conduct bars representatives from keeping an employee on the payroll who does not do work "commensurate with the compensation the employee receives."

Although "Mr. West was demoted to Senior Advisor, his pay remained the same (and) the Committee found little evidence of official work that he completed during that time," the committee said. "Thus, the Committee found that his duties as Senior Advisor were not commensurate with his pay."

'Inappropriate in every sense of the word'

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The OCE review "found that Mr. West’s behavior toward the female staff was inappropriate in every sense of the word," the Ethics Committee said. "The Committee found the witnesses who described Mr. West’s conduct to be credible and their testimony was consistent. There is no place in any congressional office for looking up skirts, or down shirts; staring at a woman’s chest; unwanted touching; or making sexual comments, even if subtle or in jest. The fact that Mr. West supervised the women he did these things to makes his behavior even more unacceptable."

In the fall of 2014 Meadows went for advice to U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, who recommended one of his own female senior staffers to look into the allegations. A former violence against women prosecutor, the senior staffer, identified in the report as "Gowdy Staffer," wrote that the charges were credible.

"And from my perspective and sort of from having my legal perspective, that this could be a real problem for Mr. Meadows," she told the committee. "Because you have someone working in your office, and these claims are very much, for me, sexual harassment potentially. Hostility in the workplace potentially. And that's not something I as a chief of staff would even entertain, tolerate, even if there was a suggestion. So that was my personal feeling based on what they had all said to me. That the stories were consistent, that there didn't seem, to me, to be some sort of ulterior motive or just animosity where they were just trying to get rid of Kenny.  It was truly a sense of: We're not comfortable. We don't feel comfortable working here."
After the Gowdy aide finished her investigation, Meadows informed his staff that West would not be coming back to Washington and would have limited contact with female staffers. But did not fire him or immediately demote him. Meadows told the committee he was concerned he had not heard West's side of the story.

Meadows told the Committee he was “shocked, upset [and] surprised” when he learned of the harassment allegations in October 2014, saying it was "difficult for me" to have missed widespread complaints about his chief of staff from female staffers in Washington and the Hendersonville office.

Speaker's office gets involved

The committee also said it was troubled that Meadows' solution to the problem — barring contact between West and the office's female employees while continuing to vest authority in him— gave rise to unequal treatment that harmed the women's ability to do their job. 
Employees told the Ethics Committee investigators that the announcement about West seemed unclear. "I don't think we were sure if he was working for (Rep. Meadows) or not," one told the committee.
Two months after the "Gowdy Staffer" completed her report, recommending Meadows sack West, a female staffer in Meadows' office called the Gowdy aide to complain that West was still on staff. Rep. Gowdy told investigators he gave Meadows “some pretty firm impolite counsel, which would have been along the lines of: He (West) has already hurt you, and it is going to continue.”
By March of 2015, rumors about West and the sexual harassment claims had reached the House Speaker's office. The general counsel for the speaker pointed out the problem with keeping West on with authority over female subordinates, even under restrictions that barred him from having contact with them. The women could make complaints that "they were not properly compensated or that there was a hostile work environment," the attorney told the congressman. Meadows told the committee he realized then he could no longer keep West as chief of staff.
 
Multiple witnesses told the Ethics Committee that they had heard West had negative information about Meadows's "personal affairs," which may have caused the congressman to keep him on despite the harassment complaints. "Both Representative Meadows and Mr. West flatly denied this, and the Committee found no credible evidence to support it," the committee said.
The committee faulted Meadows for failing to fire West immediately after the female Gowdy staffer completed her report and for communication to his staff about West's status that was "muddled at best." West "continued to flout the rules" Meadows imposed to protect the female staffers. Leaving West in a supervisory role even after November 2014 "created an environment ripe for
retaliation," the Ethics Committee said, though it added it found no "formal adverse employment action" against the women by either West or Meadows.
"It seems that Representative Meadows did not fully comprehend the ramifications of his decision to keep Mr. West as Chief of Staff
– despite being told otherwise by Gowdy Staffer – until the office of the Speaker raised the issue with him, five months after the initial complaints. ... Had Representative Meadows followed the recommendation from Gowdy Staffer and terminated Mr. West’s employment
after the investigation, most of the violations discussed in this Report would have been avoided," the report said.
 

The "power imbalance" between supervisors, the Ethics Committee wrote, makes it all the more important that higher-ups be "sensitive to the potential for discrimination and for creating uncomfortable working conditions for staff. 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 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."

As it concluded its report, the Ethics Committee cited the current climate and national conversation about sexual harassment.

"It is the Committee’s hope that this Report will not only hold Representative Meadows accountable for the inadequacy of his response to allegations of sexual harassment against someone under his supervision, but serve as a caution to the entire House community to be sensitive to the potential for sexu al harassment and discrimination," it said. "Amid an evolving national conversation about sexual harassment, Members’ offices should serve as an example for the modern American workplace, and accordingly those offices should be professional and fair environments for all who work within them."

The committee voted unanimously to issue the "reproval" and ordered Meadows to repay the government $42,625.02.

Read the Ethics Committee report here.

 

Here's the Lightning's timeline of the complaint and the Ethics Committee's action.