Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., want to know how much agencies spend to settle sexual misconduct claims.

Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., want to know how much agencies spend to settle sexual misconduct claims. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Congress Launches Investigation Into Federal Agencies' Sexual Misconduct Settlements

Lawmakers demand more transparency as a "first step" to addressing the problem.

Key oversight lawmakers are looking for answers on federal agencies’ spending to settle sexual misconduct cases, asking the Justice Department for detailed information on each use of a special fund over the last six years.

Justice uses the Judgment Fund, which is housed in the Treasury Department, to pay out judgments, awards and settlements on behalf of the government. Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who head up the House Oversight and Government Reform, said to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a letter last week that the government maintains “unclear data” on how often it taps the fund for payments related to sexual misconduct.

“The first step in addressing a problem is uncovering the extent to which the problem exists,” the lawmakers wrote. “One way to understand the extent of the problem in the executive branch is by analyzing payments from the fund.” They added that it “is not possible to distinguish from the [existing] reports which payments were made as a result of sexual misconduct in the federal workforce.”

The federal government made $4.3 billion in payments from the fund in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. Agencies paid monetary benefits totaling $44.8 million related to cases of all types before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in fiscal 2014, which is its most recent data

Gowdy and Cummings asked Sessions to identify each individual request Justice made for a payment from the Judgment Fund relating to sexual misconduct at federal agencies, “including allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and related retaliation.” They lawmakers noted they were not requesting personally identifiable information, but did ask for the agency requesting the payment in each case, the total payment to the complainant and other parties, the justification for the payment and the reimbursement amount to the fund from the agency.

The oversight committee leaders requested information on the procedures and processes Justice follows when an agency requests a Judgment Fund payment for a case involving sexual misconduct. They also asked for dollar amounts paid out for each category of final judgments, awards and settlements.

A recent study by the Merit Systems Protection Board found that nearly one in five female federal employees experienced sexual harassment in the preceding two years. It was the first such survey from MSPB since 1994, when 44 percent of women and 19 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding two years. In 2016, the year in which MSPB conducted the most recent survey, those figures were 18 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

The National Park Service has faced a litany of sexual harassment allegations, leading to multiple congressional hearings and promises for cultural changes from agency leadership. Lawmakers recently investigated claims of repeated sexual harassment at a Customs and Border Protection outpost and the Justice Department earlier this year was found to have paid out bonuses to 1,400 employees under investigation or being disciplined for cases involving stalking, peeping, inappropriate touching and inappropriate relationships with subordinates.

Republicans on Gowdy’s committee put out a report in October that found Federal agencies were operating with no clear definition of sexual misconduct and had doled out inconsistent punishments for those found to have engaged in the behavior. Discipline has ranged from oral reprimand to dismissals for first offenses, according to the report.