Senate secretary says records requested by Biden can't be released

Despite the decision, the documents' physical location remains in question.

May 4, 2020, 10:35 PM

Questions remain about any records related to a claim of sexual assault against former Vice President Joe Biden by Tara Reade, a staffer who briefly worked in his Senate office in the 1990s, after the secretary of the Senate indicated they have "no discretion to disclose any such information as requested" by Biden to locate and release any complaint that exists against him.

Biden officially asked the Senate to begin the process of searching for an alleged complaint on Friday, sending a letter to Secretary of the Senate Julie E. Adams asking for "assistance in determining whether 27 years ago a staff member in my United States Senate office filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment."

The secretary's office was advised by Senate legal counsel that the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices -- where the former staffer's complaint would likely have been filed -- has "strict confidentiality requirements.”

Biden’s campaign sought clarity. Bill Bauer, former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, sent a reply to the secretary of the Senate asking if the existence of a complaint could legally be released or if the complaint could be released to the party who initially filed it.

The secretary’s office said those inquiries would also not be allowed.

"The Secretary's Office was advised by Senate Legal Counsel that disclosing the existence of such specific records would amount to a prohibited disclosure under the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991. Furthermore, we are not aware of any exceptions in law authorizing our office to disclose any such records that do exist, if any, even to original participants in a matter," the office said in a statement Monday evening.

Biden has come under scrutiny following an allegation of sexual assault made by Reade, who was an entry-level Senate staff assistant in Biden’s office. According to her, Biden aides asked her to hand-deliver a gym bag to him in a Senate office building and when she did, she alleges he moved in close, pinned her against a wall, slipped his hand under her skirt and penetrated her with his fingers.

Biden flatly denied Reade’s allegations in an interview Friday morning.

"I'm saying unequivocally, it never, never happened. It didn't, it never happened," Biden said.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus in Wilmington, Del., March 12, 2020.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

In interviews with ABC News, Reade said that she filed a written complaint that Biden made her feel "uncomfortable" at the time of the alleged assault, but did not include the allegation of sexual assault she has since leveled against him, and that she did not retain a copy of the complaint.

Even with the secretary’s statement on Monday rejecting Biden’s request to release the records, the physical location of the documents remains in question after a convoluted back and forth between the Biden campaign, the U.S. Senate and the National Archives.

However, the National Archives indicated records of Senate personnel complaints made in the year Reade said she filed it are not under their control.

"Any records of Senate personnel complaints from 1993 would have remained under the control of the Senate. Accordingly, inquiries related to these records should be directed to the Senate," a spokesperson for the National Archives told ABC News in an email Friday afternoon.

Biden amended his previous statement in his letter to the secretary of the Senate, asking that Adams determine where the files for the Office of Fair Employment Practices are held.

It would be within the Senate's authority to pass legislation to allow for the release of any records retained by the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices, but when asked if that was a possibility, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demurred, referring ABC News back to the secretary's first release Monday.

The Senate’s response threatens to push the attention back to Biden’s personal records -- more than 1,850 boxes of archival documents from his more than 30-year career in the Senate -- currently housed at the University of Delaware.

Biden donated his records to the school in 2011 and the collection was initially set to be made public two years after he retired from public office. However, just before Biden announced his third presidential run in April 2019, the university updated its website to say the collection would remain private until two years after Biden retired from public life.

"The language on the University's webpage about the collection was modified to more accurately reflect the intent of the donation of the papers in anticipation of Mr. Biden’s potential return to public office," Andrea Boyle Tippett, a spokeswoman for the university told ABC News in an email Friday.

Tippet said that the records are still being processed, with many items yet to be catalogued, and as a result, the university is "unable to identify what documents or files can be found within the collection."

"We are currently curating the collection, a process that we estimate will carry at least into the spring of 2021," Tippett said in a subsequent email.

Aides to Biden have accessed the records as recently as 2019, according to the university, prior to Reade’s claim of sexual assault and assertion that she filed a complaint against him.

In an interview Friday morning on MSNBC, Biden stressed that his donated records would not contain any personnel files, but personal files from his time as a U.S. senator for Delaware and questioned their relevance to the allegations being made by Reade.

However, Biden did suggest that the files could impact the 2020 election, noting that the records would "be fodder in a campaign."

"The fact is that, there's a lot of things -- of speeches I've made, positions I've taken, interviews that I did overseas with people, all of those things relating to my job. And the idea that they would all be made public in the fact, while I was running for public office, they can be really taken out of context. They're papers, they're position papers. They are documents that existed and that when I -- for example when I go, when I met with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, or when I met with whomever," Biden said.

Allies with ties to the Obama administration have come to Biden’s defense, agreeing that any record Reade filed would not be housed within the collection.

"I've packed up Senate records. Why would a Senator send personnel records to a place dedicated to his or her legacy? It just doesn't happen. Ever. Those records, if they exist at all, are not in Delaware," Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Obama's 2012 campaign tweeted on Saturday.

Many have also pointed to intense scrutiny Biden has faced when vetted to serve as vice president in 2008.

Bill Jeffress, the lawyer who led the vetting of Biden during Obama's vice-presidential search, told ABC News that they found no complaints of sexual harassment during their background search, and that Reade never came up.

"We would have learned about that kind of complaint," Jeffress said.

He said a team of roughly 10 lawyers spent two months digging into Biden's background, looking for any "hint of ethical misconduct, which would include harassment and discrimination."

"We particularly were looking for any complaints that had been made about him. We found none," he said.

When asked if any complaints were found from women indicating Biden had touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, Jeffress said his team found "not a hint of that in '08."

ABC News' Mary Bruce and Sasha Pezenik contributed to this story.

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