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Double standard on payments to hush alleged affairs

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By Holly Audette
Columnist

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Since the 1990s, members of Congress have been authorized by law to spend taxpayer dollars to pay victims who have accused them of sexual harassment. The arrangements were confidential, kept between the member of Congress and one Democrat and Republican who had to sign off on the payments as chairs of the House Administration Committee. Other members of Congress, including the leadership, supposedly were not told of the settlements, in what appears to be a plausible deniability scenario whereby members do not know the colleagues who had been accused and settled complaints.

The law that authorizes these secret arrangements is the Congressional Accountability Act, a 1995 law that provided for the U.S. Department of Treasury to pay settlements from public funds to victims who file complaints that include sexual harassment. The legislation also created the Office of Compliance to oversee these settlements. Members of Congress who were accused of sexual harassment could fly under the radar and use these public funds to settle complaints against them. In addition, they could also use their office funds to do the same, calling such a settlement “severance pay.”

At least one reason for all this secrecy is to protect the elected officials from the implications of their bad acts. Those implications would definitely include damage to political careers and relationships since House members face re-election every two years. Somehow Congress thought this protection, available for decades at taxpayer expense, was justified.

But then there is the case of presidential candidate John Edwards, a U.S. senator from our beloved state. Edwards during his run for the presidency in 2008 had an affair with a videographer documenting his campaign and she eventually had his child. Two of Edwards’ supporters paid close to $1 million in expenses related to this affair, including housing, travel, etc., for his pregnant mistress. There is also the case of then-Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. Prosecutors took issue with the timing of payments made to the wife of a former staffer following their affair, claiming the payments were motivated to benefit a candidate politically.

In both cases the prosecutions failed. Edwards was charged with six counts of campaign finance violations. He was acquitted of one and jurors were divided on the other five. Prosecutors did not retry Edwards.

Fast forward to President Trump and his alleged 2006 affair with a woman whose stage name is “Stormy Daniels,” who was paid $130,000 by the president’s then-attorney a few days before election day 2016 for a non-disclosure agreement. “Intelligencer” predicted in an article published Oct. 25, 2016, that 30 percent to 40 percent of voters in the country had already cast ballots in the presidential contest through early and absentee voting. But prosecutors and many members of Congress claim that Trump violated campaign finance laws by “benefiting” politically from the non-disclosure arrangement made a few days before the final day of voting.

But wait! Are we to understand it is a good investment of public funds to secretly pay victims of sexually-harassing members of Congress and benefit their re-election chances as at least one purpose for the secret payment? But an unacceptable violation of campaign finance laws if a presidential candidate uses non-public funds to pay expenses resulting from a consensual relationship?

Can someone explain this distinction or splitting of hairs? After their secret slush fund was exposed to the public, there has been a recent impetus in Congress to change the law and require public disclosure of settlements and identities of members of Congress. The newly revised law has settlements paid with public funds and members of Congress required to repay the government.

Holding your breath for that accountability? My prediction is legislators will do an end-run around real accountability to perpetuate their double standards for as long as they can distract us with them.

Holly Audette is a small-business owner active in political and civic causes.

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