Documents from an ongoing congressional ethics investigation into U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows show that Meadows paid Chief of Staff Kenny West for months even after West had been barred from the congressman’s Washington office over complaints from female staff members.
The ethics review of Meadows, a Republican from western North Carolina, revolves around whether he broke U.S. House rules last year when he continued to pay West more than $12,000 a month until August 2015 even though West had ceased being chief of staff in April and had been barred from the office since the previous October.
Meadows’ attorney told investigators that the payments were part of a severance agreement and were appropriate, but acknowledged conflicting guidance from various congressional groups on how such payments could be made under House rules.
New details about West’s departure came to light Wednesday morning when the House Ethics Committee announced it would extend its investigation. The committee did not offer an opinion nor make any judgment in Meadows’ case and did not address the allegations made by female staffers.
But, as required by law, the committee released related documents it received from a review conducted by the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). That group forwarded its review to the committee five months ago, saying officials believed Meadows may have broken House rules by continuing to pay West after he stepped down from his post.
Beyond investigating the severance pay, OCE investigators interviewed several former female employees who claim West made them uncomfortable at work. Most incidents reported to OCE during the interviews last year took place in 2014 at Meadows’ Washington, D.C., office.
The OCE found that Meadows was informed of his employees’ concerns and complaints in October 2014. The OCE review found West was no longer physically present in the congressional office after Meadows was informed of the complaints, but West continued working as chief of staff elsewhere until April 2015.
Congressman Meadows took swift and appropriate steps to address the issues.
Letter to ethics officials from Meadows attorney Elliot S. Burke
In a response to the OCE review, Meadows’ attorney, Elliot S. Berke of the Berke-Farah law firm in Washington, D.C., wrote that the congressman changed West’s position from chief of staff to “senior adviser” in April 2015. His $155,000 annual salary did not change, documents show.
The next month, according to Meadows, West agreed to resign. According to Meadows and the OCE, West was paid through Aug. 15, 2015.
Under House rules, members of Congress may not pay employees who are not performing “duties commensurate with the compensation” received.
Meadows’ attorney told the Ethics Committee in May 2016 that West was performing duties for the congressman through a transition period following his resignation, including attending three constituent meetings in North Carolina on the congressman’s behalf.
Meadows’ office did not respond to McClatchy’s request for comment this week. Efforts to reach West by phone Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Documents from the OCE investigation show Meadows responded quickly to his staff’s concerns about West. But those records also show employees were under the impression West was no longer employed or being paid in 2015.
Women interviewed by OCE officials claimed West talked about “people’s love lives in the office unprompted” and “was definitely making every woman in the office feel very uncomfortable,” investigation records show. The employees, many of whom still work in politics or for other members of Congress, were not identified by name in the documents.
He would place his hand on my shoulder and on my back, and it just felt very uncomfortable.
Former staff member complaint about West
One woman said of West, “You just know when someone’s checking you out and he did it all the time.” OCE interview transcripts also show a female staff member said West looked down her shirt. She told him to go away.
Another said West “would place his hand on my shoulder and on my back, and it just felt very uncomfortable.”
Meadows’ official response to House ethics officials – written by his attorney – does not directly address the nature of the women’s complaints but said he took “swift and appropriate steps” to address “employment issues” regarding West. Those steps included an internal review, a third-party review, changing West’s responsibilities and authority, and ultimately accepting his resignation in May 2015.
Before joining Meadows’ congressional staff in January of 2013, West was a political opponent in their Western North Carolina district. Meadows beat West in a 2012 Republican primary runoff, which led to his first term in Congress.
Meadows, from Cashiers, N.C., spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He’s a founding member and vocal leader with the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, an invite-only group of the chamber’s most-conservative Republican lawmakers. Meadows was instrumental in ousting former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last year.