WASHINGTON — A congressional ethics panel is looking into allegations that Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings sexually harassed a former staffer, according to a conservative group that first aired the accusations.
The Office of Congressional Ethics contacted the staffer, Winsome Packer, and is "reviewing the numerous allegations in the lawsuit," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Wednesday.
The ethics office on Wednesday would neither confirm nor deny that it was investigating Hastings.
Judicial Watch in March filed a lawsuit against Hastings on Packer's behalf. Fitton at the time alleged that Packer, a staffer on a House commission that Hastings led, was subjected to a "never-ending barrage of unwanted sexual advances" and was threatened and intimidated when she tried to report Hastings' behavior.
Hastings in March called the assertions "ludicrous" and said he'd "never sexually harassed anyone." His attorney, Tonya Robinson, said the lawmaker was "deeply disturbed" by the allegations in the lawsuit "and, in the strongest terms, denies the charges. Mr. Hastings has stated unequivocally that the plaintiff's claims are untruthful and without merit."
Robinson said Packer's charges "already have been the subject of extensive counseling and mediation, as the plaintiff acknowledges in her complaint. In that context, the plaintiff's allegations were fully aired and found to be meritless, and will be shown to be meritless in court as well."
Fitton said the congressional ethics office contacted Parker in May. The panel — which does not include any sitting members of Congress — was established in 2007 in an effort to ensure that complaints against members of Congress do not go unanswered. It has up to 90 days to review the allegations and recommend to the House Committee on Ethics — which includes five Republicans and five Democrats — whether it should review or dismiss the matter.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, says the alleged harassment took place from 2008-10, while Parker and Hastings were working for the U.S. Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe, also known as the Helsinki commission. Hastings served as chair and co-chair at the commission, which is an independent U.S. government agency.
According to the ethics office, it has the jurisdiction to review allegations of misconduct that occurred after March 11, 2008 — the date the House made the office official. It can review allegations against members of Congress and their staffs.
Judicial Watch named the commission and its staff director as defendants in the suit, which asks for monetary damages and a finding that Hastings and the commission discriminated against Packer, who's a Republican. She alleged that the "emotional distress" caused her "severe health problems" and forced her to leave her "prestigious position." She is seeking back pay, as well as punitive damages.
"The matter raised in the lawsuit certainly ought to be the subject of an ethics investigation," Fitton said. "These are allegations that involve his duties and responsibilities as a member of Congress."
Republicans took note of the office's interest, noting that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had once said Democrats would "demand the highest ethics from every public servant."
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