Mel Watt, a federal housing finance agency director and former North Carolina congressman, strongly denied Thursday that he sexually harassed an employee.
Testifying before the House Finance Committee, Watt refuted claims by Simone Grimes, a special adviser at the agency, and accused her of selectively leaking recorded conversations that she maintains proves that Watt acted improperly.
Grimes filed a sexual harassment complaint against Watt in May. She told the committee Thursday that felt “vulnerable and unsafe” because of Watt’s alleged behavior.
Watt countered that his conversations with Grimes were that of a mentor and not as a supervisor making sexual advances toward a subordinate.
“I am disappointed that it appears that Ms. Grimes is now is attempting to use my efforts to advise and mentor her in my efforts to be clear about the limit of our friendship, specifically that it would have no impact positive or negative on her employment aspirations, as the basis of a legal claim,” Watt said.
“Those who know me well know that I have a long history of having successfully mentored numerous employees, both male and female,” he said.
“I’m also, perhaps, even more disappointed that someone that I considered a friend and mentee would for years would be systematically trying to lay the groundwork to file a lawsuit by recording what Ms. Grimes’ verified affidavit says are ‘all conversations’ with me...”
Watt complained that parts of those recordings were ‘selectively” leaked to the media.
She testified that beginning in September 2015, Watt made “multiple unwanted advances towards me and insisted that we meet in several unusual locations to discuss my professional issues.” She told the committee that she recorded 15 conversations with Watt.
“The frequency of these advances, coupled with advice from friends…led me to record our interactions,” she said. “I felt vulnerable and unsafe. Director Watt more than once implied that his advances were linked to my ability to receive promotions and pay increases.”
Grimes said she got no relief when she complained to the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
“Not only are you hurt by what happened, but you quickly learn that all of the agency mechanisms that you hope have a sympathetic ear are not only slightly hostile, but make it clear that they’re not there to support you, but defend their client no matter what their client has done,” she said.
Watt said lawsuits in the case will prove that “I did not take any actions or engage in any contact involving Ms. Grimes that is contrary to law.”
A member of the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2013 and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Watt, 73, was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency in 2013. He took office in January 2014 and his five-year term expires January 2019.
Watt told the committee that he has long been a champion for the rights of women and minorities.
“I am a big supporter of the #metoo movement, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Watt told the committee. “But it cannot be a substitute for going through the legal process. Because, to be quite honest, this committee can’t deal with this in a legal way and redress Ms. Grimes’ claims. The courts can.”
FHFA officials said there are currently three investigations into Grimes’ allegations – by the agency’s inspector general, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and by the U.S. Postal Service. It is not uncommon for other government agencies to investigate claims in another agency.
Watt refused to cooperate with investigators, asserting that his legal counsel advised him that as a presidential appointee, he wasn’t subject to FHFA harassment rules. That annoyed Finance Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
“Here’s the question I have to ask…why wouldn’t you, as leader of this organization, voluntarily bind yourself to a policy that you expect every other employee to be bound by?” Hensarling said.
The committee hearing was conducted at the same time the Senate Judiciary Committee was holding its hearing concerning sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“I’m not sure this hearing will be heard,” Hensarling said of his panel. “But it should be.”