Sexual harassment policy in Congress designed to 'protect the harasser': Congresswoman

PHOTO: Rep. Jackie Speier testifies before the House Administration Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Nov. 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. PlayChip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE
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A Democratic representative from California slammed the current sexual harassment policy in Congress as “convoluted” and designed to “protect the harasser."

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“I think it was a system set up in 1995 to protect the harasser,” Congresswoman Jackie Speier told ABC News co-anchor Martha Raddatz on “This Week” Sunday. “This is not a victim-friendly process. And one victim who I spoke with said, ‘You know, the process was almost worse than the harassment.’”

Speier is a leading co-sponsor of a bill to require all lawmakers and staff to complete anti-harassment training, which is currently optional.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has announced that the House will vote this week on the bill, called the “ME TOO Congress Act,” named after the #MeToo social media awareness campaign on sexual harassment and assault.

“Doing the sexual harassment prevention training is one step,” Speier said. “It’s a small step. The whole system needs a comprehensive shift. And that’s why my legislation would, first of all, have it also apply to interns and fellows, which right now have nowhere to go.”

The California Democrat, a longtime advocate against sexual harassment, also said she’s not ready to call for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who faces allegations of sexual harassment, to step down.

“I don’t think we know” whether the allegations against Conyers are accurate, Speier said, deferring to the ongoing House Ethics Committee investigation into accusations that the Michigan Democrat had sexually harassed members of his staff.

“I think that the allegations [against Conyers] are very serious and that’s why the ethics committee needs to move very swiftly, not wait 8 years, but very swiftly, staff up if necessary, to determine whether or not those allegations are accurate,” Speier said. “And if they’re accurate, I do believe Congressman Conyers should step down.”

“I think we are innocent until we are proven guilty,” she said.

The House Ethics Committee announced last week that it had launched an investigation into Conyers amid allegations of sexual harassment and age discrimination involving his staff. Conyers has said he would fully cooperate.

BuzzFeed News reported Monday that Conyers' office paid a female aide over $27,000 to settle a wrongful dismissal complaint. ABC News has also obtained court filings referencing a federal complaint filed by Conyers’ longtime scheduler, who alleged "sexual advances in the form of inappropriate comments and touches.” The case was later dropped after the judge denied her request to keep the complaint sealed to protect her privacy.

Melanie Sloan, a lawyer who worked with Michigan Rep. John Conyers on the House Judiciary Committee, has also stepped forward to accuse Conyers of “increasingly abusive” to her, behavior she says wasn’t “sexual harassment” but “sexual discrimination.”

Conyers has acknowledged that his office settled a harassment complaint involving a former staffer but denies the allegations against him.

In the wake of the allegations, New York Congresswoman Kathleen Rice became the first House Democrat to step forward to call for Conyers to resign.

“I've reviewed the allegations against him, and they're as credible as they are repulsive,” Rice said in a statement. “The women who reported this behavior suffered serious professional repercussions for doing so, which is exactly why so many victims of sexual harassment and assault decide not to step forward.”

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