U.S. tax payers have shelled out $17 million over the last 20 years in order to protect politicians accused of sexual harassment, but most Americans were probably never aware of it.
Apparently some U.S. congressmen weren't either, according to Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). That is, until sexual harassment allegations involving several high profile congressional members came to light over the past few months. Now DeSantis, and several of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, want to eliminate the so-called "hush fund," require those who dipped into it to pay back the money and publicize their identities.
"It's an amazing system on Capitol Hill where a member of Congress can commit misconduct then have the tax payers bail the member out by paying a settlement, and then it's all kept secret and hidden from the tax payer," DeSantis told me in an interview.
The fund originates from the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, a piece of legislation that holds Congress to the same harassment and discrimination laws as regular workplaces, or at least that was the intent. By the time it was signed into law, the act included a provision mandating that victims go through a 90-day dispute resolution process and receive counseling. Any settlements that resulted were required to be kept secret and paid for out of taxpayer funds. DeSantis noted that money has been reauthorized ever since, but since few people were aware of the funds existence, it continued to be renewed.
"If there's a settlement being paid out with tax dollars, I'm fine with keeping the recipient private, but you cannot keep the fact there was a payment made private," said DeSantis. "You cannot shield the taxpayer from knowing the nature of the offense at issue and you need to know the offender."
Congressional members accused of various workplace violations, including sexual harassment, have dipped into the "hush fund" more than 260 times, according to a November letter from the congressional Office of Compliance. It is unclear how many sexual harassment cases were included in that number, which is another reason why DeSantis and his colleagues want to pass their bill. By unmasking the alleged perpetrators, the public can get a sense of how prevalent sexual harassment is on Capitol Hill.
"I'm fighting to have retroactive transparency," he explained. "We have lots of resistance from that from some people here in Congress, I mean maybe they are named in it. I don't know why ... We've got to open the books, so that's what I'm going to be fighting to do."
The bill would also withdraw victims from their non-disclosure agreements, should they wish to speak out on the problem.
"Our legislation will empower survivors by increasing transparency and accountability, and providing survivors the freedom to publicly share their stories if they so choose, regardless of the non-disclosure agreements they were forced to sign," said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in a November press release.
DeSantis, a trained lawyer, noted that the NDAs would probably not have much legal standing anyway.
"It wasn't a confidential settlement between two parties, it was a confidential settlement between somebody receiving the money and basically the House of Representatives," he explained.
Essentially, if Congress created the secrecy provision, Congress can eliminate it, too.