Florida Dem accused of sexual harassment gets support from Congress

In this May 19, 2010 file photo, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this May 19, 2010 file photo, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

WASHINGTON The phrase “I believe the women” has become a motto for lawmakers in the wake of career-ending sexual harassment allegations against Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken. But when sexual harassment allegations against South Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings from 2011 resurfaced last week, the reaction was different.

“I believe him,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat.

Capitol Hill news outlet Roll Call reported on Friday that a woman who accused Hastings of unwanted touching and lewd remarks in 2011 received a $220,000 taxpayer-funded settlement, the largest amount reported since a wave of sexual harassment allegations began sweeping through Congress.

The 81-year-old Hastings denies the allegations and said he had no previous knowledge that taxpayer funds were paid out to Winsome Packer, a congressional staffer who worked for a commission that studies security and cooperation in Europe. Court documents show that he was removed from the sexual harassment lawsuit in 2012. Packer continued the lawsuit against the commission after Hastings was removed, and the payment was made in 2014, according to Roll Call.

“I am outraged that any taxpayer dollars were needlessly paid to Ms. Packer,” Hastings said in a statement. “At no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made.”

Hastings, who lives in Miramar and represents majority African-American neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, has been a magnet for controversy throughout his four decades in public office, and he has survived every time.

“I have no objection, personally, for all of the information having to do with this matter to be made public,” Hastings said on Tuesday. “But I cannot in bits and pieces explain all of the nuances. I knew there was a settlement. I had no knowledge of the terms of the settlement, none, zero.”

Hastings was stripped of his federal judgeship in 1989 after he was impeached and convicted of bribery and perjury, but successfully ran for Congress in 1992. His longtime girlfriend who works at his district office in Florida received the $168,411 maximum congressional salary for years. And the 2011 sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Packer and funded by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch was rife with tabloid fodder and embarrassing anecdotes.

But Hastings has been reelected with ease every two years.

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“If there is someone in the United States House of Representatives who can survive this, it’s Alcee Hastings,” said Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “My goodness, he’s been impeached by this body. Alcee Hastings, God bless him, he doesn’t care cycles.”

Rep. Lois Frankel, a Palm Beach Democrat and longtime lawmaker who lost a heated Democratic primary to Hastings in 1992, after Hastings called her a “racist bitch,” also said the newly reported taxpayer-funded settlement doesn’t change anything. The lawsuit is finished and the House Ethics Committee already investigated and cleared him of sexual harassment and fostering a hostile work environment in 2014, though the committee said in its report that Hastings made two “troubling” comments to Packer.

“Here’s the thing, it went through Ethics, and they didn’t find against him,” Frankel said. “He went through a process and I think the process speaks for itself. Unless something else comes out, he’s already gone through the process. The voters are aware of it, they elected him, it went through Ethics, I don’t know what else to do.”

Hastings is the third male lawmaker connected to payouts involving female staffers, though his case appears to differ from former Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat., who paid a sexual harassment settlement from his office budget, and Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, who agreed to a $84,000 taxpayer-funded settlement to end a sexual harassment case against him in 2015. Multiple Democrats and Republicans have called on Farenthold to resign while Conyers, who was the longest serving member of Congress, resigned after multiple woman came forward and accused him of sexual harassment.

A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the process on the allegations against Hastings has run its course. “The House Ethics Committee has investigated this matter and ruled on it,” Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill said.

And Democratic lawmakers such as New York Rep. Kathleen Rice and California Rep. Jackie Speier who were vocal about calling on Conyers and Farenthold to resign haven’t said anything about Hastings.

“I don’t forsee leaders calling on him to resign,” Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that Hastings’ settlement didn’t come up at an event with female members of Congress on Monday.

Hastings doesn’t owe much to House leadership. Pelosi declined to appoint Hastings chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee in 2006 after Blue Dog Democrats argued he shouldn’t be in charge due to his impeachment.

Instead, he’s spent the past decade needling Republicans from his perch on the Rules Committee, where he once called Texas a “crazy state.”

“He has very, very strong support from back home, he’s well-known,” said Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. “I don’t think this does anything for him.”

Lawmakers from both parties said the allegations against Hastings were serious and should be taken seriously, but the process has played itself out. Unless new allegations or additional information emerge, there isn’t any reason to call for his resignation.

And there isn’t any indication that the political climate could force Hastings not to run for a 14th term in 2018.

“He’ll go when he wants to go,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “He’s an immovable object.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

House Speaker Paul Ryan said sexual harassment will not be tolerated in Congress, as Rep. Conyers and Sen. Franken are facing calls to resign for their behavior.