The Congressional Office of Compliance secretly paid close to $100,000 in taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment claims from at least two young male staffers who worked for disgraced former Congressman Eric Massa, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the matter told ABC News.
The claims were settled after Massa, a Democrat from upstate New York, resigned in 2010 amid a pending ethics investigation into allegations he groped and sexually harassed members of his staff.
"This is exactly why there should be transparency," said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who blasted the payouts in an interview with ABC News. Rice, who is co-sponsoring legislation that would remove secrecy from the payouts, added, "There is no reason why these settlements, these accusations should be done in secret once they're adjudicated."
When asked for comment on the specific settlements paid to Massa’s staffers, a spokesman for the Office of Compliance would neither confirm nor deny any of the terms, saying they are required by law to keep those records secret.
The Office of Compliance, now in the spotlight amid new bombshell accusations of sexual harassment by sitting members of Congress, says it has paid out more than $17 million in taxpayer dollars over 20 years to settle workplace complaints in the halls of Congress
That revelation, first provided by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who now is leading an effort to reform the claims process in Congress, set off a fierce public backlash about the process by which Congress handles its own cases of harassment and its use of taxpayer money to secretly settle those claims.
The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act gave the Office of Compliance the ability to use taxpayer dollars from the Department of Treasury to settle harassment claims against members of Congress.
As Congress and the rest of the American workforce faces a cultural reckoning around the issue, Rep. Rice and a bipartisan group of House members introduced legislation this week that would require Congress to disclose the names of any members whose cases of sexual harassment cases are settled with taxpayer funds.
As of now, there is no way to know how many cases resemble those of the staffers who were allegedly harassed by Massa. Congress says the $17 million it's paid out has been used in 264 individual cases, but it’s not clear how many of those cases dealt specifically with sexual harassment. The Office of Compliance will not release that data.
Making the process even more opaque, accusers who resolve sexual harassment complaints in Congress are almost always made to sign non-disclosure agreements as a part of the terms of their financial settlements. That agreement prevents them from talking about the money or the allegations of sexual misconduct.
“The entire process is designed solely to protect the institution of Congress,” said a person intimately familiar with Massa’s cases, who asked not to be identified.
Shortly after his resignation in March 2010, Massa admitted in interviews he was "guilty" of engaging in inappropriate behavior with his staff, but said that he did nothing sexual and nothing criminal. In an interview with Fox News at the time of the scandal he admitted to groping one of his staff members. "Yeah, I did. Not only did I grope him, but I tickled him until he couldn't breathe," Massa said.
That admission about tickling staff drew national scrutiny and landed Massa in the crosshairs of late-night comedians.
James D. Doyle, Massa’s attorney in New York, said the former congressman had no knowledge of the payments to his staffers from the Office of Compliance. Doyle said the process is unfair to both the accuser and the accused.