More than a year after Blake Farenthold was blasted by Republicans and Democrats alike for using taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim, a new bill would mandate that members of Congress be personally liable to pay for such claims.
After months of stalled negotiations on how to reform the process for sexual harassment claims in Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate agreed on a compromised version of a bill Thursday. The legislation is now headed to President Donald Trump’s desk, where he will decide whether to sign the legislation.
The bill addresses a number of concerns highlighted about the process through which congressional employees can report discriminatory or inappropriate behavior, but one piece in particular has been tied directly to Farenthold, who previously represented District 27, which includes Victoria.
The bill would hold members of Congress liable to repay any awards and settlements stemming from acts of harassment or retaliation that they committed, according to a summary of the bill. Farenthold resolved a sexual harassment complaint from a staffer by paying an $84,000 settlement that was funded by taxpayers.
“I think that his settlement was by far the most public,” said Kristin Nicholson, who has advocated for reform on Capitol Hill. “That was the piece that a lot of the public seized on as kind of an egregious example.”
Nicholson worked for years as a staffer on the Hill and now runs the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. She co-founded the group Congress Too to advocate for reform after scores of employees began coming forward with stories of harassment, discrimination and other unwanted or inappropriate behavior in congressional offices amid the broader #MeToo movement.
Farenthold, a Corpus Christi Republican elected to office in 2010, was accused by his former communication director, Lauren Greene, of a range of misconduct and harassment. Greene sued after she was fired from her position. Among other things, Farenthold is alleged to have told another staffer that he had “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about her. Greene’s lawsuit alleged that Farenthold told the same staffer that Greene “could show her nipples whenever she wanted to.” Farenthold has denied making these statements.
Farenthold settled the claims with an $84,000 payment financed by taxpayers.
“The accountability to the taxpayer is always a big motivator in terms of addressing these issues,” Nicholson said. “I think everybody was just kind of aghast that their hard-earned tax dollars could be used for something like this.”
Neither Farenthold nor his lawyer responded to a request for comment from the Advocate on Monday.
After resigning from Congress, Farenthold accepted a position as a lobbyist for the Calhoun Port Authority. The Victoria Advocate is currently suing the port’s board, alleging that it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it hired Farenthold.
Les Alderman, an attorney who represented Greene in her lawsuit, said the legislation would not go far enough to protect victims working on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the federal government.
“This affects no real change for the vast majority of people,” Alderman said.
Alderman has advocated for changes including removing taxes on awards from harassment settlements and increasing protections for victims of discrimination in addition to harassment.
Michael Cloud, the Victoria Republican who succeeded Farenthold, has not commented directly on his predecessor's behavior while in office.
“I was happy to support strong protections for staff and making sure members of Congress are held to the highest standard; members of Congress should not be allowed to hide from accountability,” Cloud said in a statement emailed by his spokesman, Brian Cruickshanks. “We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling.”
In a follow-up email, Cruickshanks wrote: “Rep. Cloud believes taxpayers should never be on the hook in situations like these” in response to a question about whether Farenthold should repay the $84,000. Gov. Greg Abbott has previously called on Farenthold to repay the money.
Cruickshanks said the congressman was not available Monday to answer questions about the legislation.
Cloud has declined to comment on his predecessor in the past.
“I’m not going to comment on Congressman Farenthold. That’s old news. It’s been litigated over and over and over in the media,” Cloud said in July. “I will say that I’m committed to running the highest of ethics in my office, and that will be something that’s made very clear to our staff. Integrity and character are extremely important to me as an individual, and it will be important to our staff environment.”