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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Sexual harassment in Congress and taxpayers foot the bill

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Winsome Packer, and adviser to Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, lost her six-figure income, her job and her house after she accused her boss of sexual harassment in 2010.

In the end, we received a secret settlement of $220,000, paid out of taxpayer funds by the congressional Office of Compliance but lost her Virginia home while the case dragged on for four years.

She served as Hasting’s policy adviser before he arranged a foreign post in Vienna with a salary of $165,000.  The job, she said, came with strings: Hastings wanted to stay with her in her apartment when he came to Vienna to visit.

The case turned into a “he said, she said” with Hastings claiming he never asked to stay with her.

“I ignored him at first, hoping he would see I wasn’t interested,” Packer told The Washington Post in an interview.

But he became more insistent, she says.  In a July 2008 trip to Kazakhstan, Packer received instructions to report to a hotel hospitality suite right after her plane landed at 4 a.m. and found Hastings waiting for her.

Reports The Post:

“I went up there, and the first thing he did was grab me and press himself up against me. Then he pressed his face against mine,” Packer said in an interview. “I reminded him that this was inappropriate. It was the first time I told him explicitly.”

Her lawsuit claims that the harassment continued over two years and that she reported numerous incidents to Hastings’s chief of staff, Fred Turner, asking him to intervene. In her lawsuit, she said Turner spoke with Hastings but the harassment continued. When she continued to complain, she said Turner retaliated against her by marginalizing her at work, including limiting travel and reassigning much of her work. Turner did not respond to requests for comment, but he previously denied to congressional investigators that he retaliated or that he received early reports of Packer’s complaints, according to a House Ethics Committee report.

Her case in 2010 went to the Office of Compliance, established by the Congressional Accountability Act as the place to take legislative branch employees to file workplace claims, including sexual harassment.

The office recommended mediation but Packer calls the meetings there as bullying sessions where House attorneys urged her to drop her claim or accept a low settlement.

“Their opening line to my attorney was, ‘I want you to know your client is a liar and an extortionist,’ ” Packer told the Post.

“It was shocking,” George Chuzi, her attorney, said. “They just unloaded on her. The verbal assaults on her integrity, the threats to expose her went on for 20 minutes. This was supposed to be a mediation meeting, mind you, where both sides came together to discuss a possible resolution. That is not what happened.”

The office offered $20,000 to $25,000 to settle with Packer.  She rejected the offer and filed a lawsuit in DC District Court against Hastings, his chief of staff and the commission.  Attorneys for Judicial Watch, pro-bono and said the House attorneys used “scorched-earth’s tactics.”

Hastings eventually admitted “crude barroom conversations” with Packer, talking about underwear and telling her he “had difficulty sleeping after sex.”

But things changed when Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) took over leadership of the commission.  He turned the case over to Senate lawyers.  The Senate Employment Counsel arranged Packer’s out of court settlement.

Packer is still out of work and lives with her sister in a rented duplex.

“I lost my career, I lost one-third of my pension.  Lost my security clearance and I lost many of my friends,” she told the Post.

(Article based on a story by The Washington Post.)

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