As ethics chair, Rep. Brooks in middle of national storm over sexual harassment
WASHINGTON — As head of the House Ethics Committee, Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks is in the middle of the national reckoning over sexual harassment sweeping through Congress. The three-term GOP lawmaker, who also helps lead the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, spoke with IndyStar about how the committee is responding, whether she’s experienced sexual harassment, and whether Republicans have a credibility problem on the issue.
Q. In the last Congress you served on the committee investigating the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Now you’re in the middle of the sexual harassment debate. Why do you keep avoiding controversial issues?
Oh my heavens. I really did not anticipate this when the speaker asked me last year if I would be the chair (of the House Ethics Committee). Quite frankly, I’d been on the committee for four years and I told them I wanted to think about it. … While I was flattered that he asked, and I believe it’s incredibly important, I never sought that gavel.
Q. How much of your time is being taken up by the committee?
Far more than I realized when I accepted…On average, I’m probably spending 10-15 hours a week on it.
Q. How busy are you just because of the sexual harassment issue?
Because of the number of allegations and people who are choosing to speak out about sexual harassment here in Congress, there are a lot more meetings and discussions and even hearings on `Where is the process broken?' And I do believe the process has not been as effective as it should be.
It has been very confusing. There have been far too many avenues and ways for a person who wanted to complain against a supervisor or against a member (of Congress).
What I think is missing is…we need to create either an ombudsman office, or a victim’s advocate office — a body within our structure where people know where to go, and where they will have…a counselor assigned to them to help them through the process.
Q. Your committee recently asked the Office of Compliance, which handles congressional labor and employment disputes, to turn over all its records related to sexual harassment. Why?
Certainly the Ethics Committee cannot investigate matters that we don’t know about. It was obviously very shocking when we learned that there had been settlements totaling $17 million for various employee matters over a 20-year period. I think that was very surprising to almost everybody in Congress. Most people did not know that fund existed, or this type of settlement was being paid out
It’s my understanding that about $1 million of that has been paid out for work place harassment-type issues of all sorts — race, religion, sex — all the various manners in which employees can be discriminated against under Title 7 of the (Civil Rights Act of 1964).
We really are interested in knowing which member offices — whether it’s the member or their employees — have been settling matters alleging sexual harassment so we can take up those matters.
But what we’ve learned is that the statute precludes (the Office of Compliance from sharing the information).
Q. So what’s the next step? Are you going to change the law?
We are talking about changing that part of the statute. We don’t need a statute change to create this victim's advocate within the Office of Compliance. We (also) passed a bill very quickly requiring mandatory (sexual harassment) training for all House employees and House members. Those are things we are doing that are positive. But we have long way to go yet.
Q. Is there a difference in how Democrats and Republicans are addressing this issue? After women accused Sen. Al Franken of sexual misconduct, many of his colleagues said he should resign and he is. Democratic Rep. John Conyers also stepped down. President Trump, on the other hand, endorsed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and said the sexual misconduct accusations against both Moore and himself are made up. Do Republicans have a credibility problem on this issue?
You left out that (GOP Rep.) Trent Franks stepped down.
Q. The president is a much bigger officeholder than a House member.
I appreciate that, but the Committee on Ethics, we only have jurisdiction over House members.
I believe that the complaint came to (House) Speaker (Paul) Ryan relative to congressman Franks. Speaker Ryan referred that to our committee and our committee took it up very quickly. Congressman Franks chose to resign. So I believe that Republicans and Democrats within the House are taking this very seriously, are holding members accountable. It’s been incredibly bipartisan and in many ways nonpartisan, the way we’re handling it.
Q. Do you believe the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, who spoke out again this week?
I missed the Megyn Kelly interview. Because I have not actually watched that, I am not going to comment on that part of it. But I will tell you as someone who has worked with victims and — as a U.S. attorney — worked with the (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), I am very much opposed to any sexual harassment, whether in the workplace or out of the workplace.
During the presidential campaign, I did speak out against any misconduct that was alleged against the president, and I stand by those comments from the campaign.
But I also want to point out that some of these things came to light during the campaign, and the voters chose President Trump. In many respects, there are many really incredibly positive things that are happening in this administration — tax reform being one, of which he’s been intimately involved.
But I believe strongly that women should come forward when they believe that they have been inappropriately treated. Not just women, men as well.
Q. Have you experienced sexual harassment during your career?
I am very, very fortunate and have not experienced sexual harassment personally. But I’ve know many, many people who have.
We should be an example for the country. That’s why we have to get this process right. I’m afraid that there have been far too many people here on the Hill who have been subject to it. And we have to end it.
Q. In addition to what you’re doing in your role as head of the Ethics Committee, are you also involved in this issue as co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues?
We’re kind of waiting because bills (on sexual harassment) are being worked on...There have been about 20 bills already dropped. I’m really hopeful there will be a big bipartisan bill that gets dropped. Then, hopefully, the women’s caucus will make a big push to get all of the women to sign on to the bill.
Q. Do you expect action by early next year?
I would think there should be some action on this. There have been a couple of hearings. I would like to see them have more. Because of these hearings, we’ve peeled back some of what the challenges are.
Q. Do you think Congress will make public past settlements of sexual harassment allegations?
I do not know. That is being discussed and debated right now. I know a number of people are calling for the past settlements to come forward. Others are concerned because both parties signed nondisclosures. Certainly if a victim did not want something to be disclosed, we need to honor that. Now if a victim wanted something to be disclosed, I think that’s something different to take a look at.
Often in these settlements, the sides agree to find no fault and to walk away from going further. So that’s a tough issue.
Q. Can you say how many sexual harassment allegations the Ethics Committee is investigating?
I cannot discuss that.
Q. Can you say whether there’s been an uptick in complaints?
I can’t tell you. But I think we are educating the House employees and members.
We are saying, `If you see something, say something. If you are concerned about something, please come to the House Ethics Committee and share that with us.’ We absolutely want to create a positive work environment here in the House. We are not going to tolerate sexual harassment here on the Hill. We want people to know that they can, and should, come to us.
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