A sexual harassment accusation against U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings resulted in a $220,000 lawsuit settlement — money that the congressman said should not have been paid because he did nothing wrong.
The allegations about conduct that former staffer Winsome Packer said occurred from January 2008 to February 2010 — which the Broward-Palm Beach county congressman has repeatedly denied — wended their way through the legal system and congressional ethics process for years.
Official reports on the matter include riveting details, including discussion of underwear, trouble sleeping after having sex and an email in which Packer told another staffer that she had a crush on Hastings.
The issue of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill is receiving new, intense attention as the worlds of entertainment, politics and media grapple with misbehavior of men in positions of power. Last week, U.S. Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced resignations over allegations of sexual misconduct.
Roll Call, a Washington, D.C, news organization that focuses on Capitol Hill and congressional elections, reported Friday night that the federal government paid the money to settle a lawsuit in the Hastings case.
Until Friday evening, Hastings said in a written statement to the Sun Sentinel, “I had not seen the settlement agreement between the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and Ms. Packer. This matter was handled solely by the Senate Chief Counsel for Employment. At no time was I consulted, nor did I know until after the fact that such a settlement was made. … I am outraged that any taxpayer dollars were needlessly paid to Ms. Packer.”
Roll Call reported the payment was made in 2014. At the time of the settlement, the commission was headed at the time by a senator, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland.
The case against Hastings made headlines years ago, when the conservative organization Judicial Watch filed a 2011 lawsuit on Packer’s behalf accusing the congressman of unwelcome sexual advances and of retaliating against her for complaining.
Packer said she had been subjected to repeated harassment while Hastings served as chairman or co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. She was a policy adviser to the commission.
When the case was filed in 2011, and On multiple occasions, Hastings said the allegations were untrue. “I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he said when the case was filed in 2011. “In fact, I am insulted that these ludicrous allegations are being made against me.”
He told the Sun Sentinel at the time that he would prevail in the lawsuit. “That is a certainty. In a race with a lie, the truth always wins. And when the truth comes to light and the personal agendas of my accusers are exposed, I will be vindicated.”
In the lawsuit, Judicial Watch said Packer “was forced to endure unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwelcome touching by Mr. Hastings.” The suit said Packer rejected his advances and complained to the commission staff director. “Mr. Hastings refused to stop sexually harassing her,” the group said, and then he and the staff director threatened to fire her when she objected to the congressman’s conduct.
In 2012, Hastings said he “never had a romantic or sexual interest in her, nor did I ever express or otherwise suggest that I had any such interest.” He accused Packer of using the lawsuit to promote a self-published novel called “A Personal Agenda” that purports to examine sexual harassment in Congress “inspired by her own experiences.”
He also said Judicial Watch’s involvement was worth noting, given that the organization “has targeted Democrats in general and me in particular.”
Charges naming him in the Judicial Watch lawsuit were dismissed in 2012. U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein dismissed the allegations against Hastings and the staff director, but continued the case against the commission. She didn’t rule on the alleged actions by Hastings and the staff director but said Packer brought claims against them on grounds that didn’t apply.
A House Ethics Committee investigation was closed in 2014. In a report, the committee said it “found that the most serious allegations in this matter were not supported by evidence. While Representative Hastings did admit to certain conduct that was less than professional, the committee determined that the conduct did not rise to the level of a violation of House rules, laws, regulations, or other standards of conduct.”
The committee said Hastings admitted hugging Packer on a number of occasions and that many witnesses reported Hastings hugs “many people often” and that he “did not place his hands or body in such a fashion that indicated the hug was sexual or intimate in nature.” Still, the committee said, “hugging is not the most professional way to greet coworkers.”
The committee also said some of Hastings comments “show poor judgment” even though “on their own, they do not constitute sexual harassment.”
Among the issues:
Packer said Hastings once asked her about her underwear. She said he once commented in the presence of colleagues at a bar in Vienna “that he did not understand how female members of Congress could wear the same underwear from the beginning of a congressional session to the end of a session.”
An Office of Congressional Ethics report said Hastings denied asking about her underwear and said his bar remark referred to how men as well as women in Congress “can stay in their clothing, specifically their underwear, for 16 hours at a time.”
“He stated that during this conversation people were drinking and `one-upping’ each other,” the report says.
— Sleeping after sex.
Packer said Hastings once told her he “was tired because he was not sleeping well. Representative Hastings then said that even after sex he does not sleep well,” the Office of Congressional Ethics report said.
Hastings said he made the comment to men and women and couldn’t recall if he told it to Packer. He said that she told him “that when she had difficulty sleeping, she danced in her apartment.”
— Crush on Hastings.
A copy of an email from Packer to Hastings chief of staff in 2007 was included in the Office of Congressional Ethics report. In the email, she wrote that “I have had a crush on him [Hastings] since I first met him, so there is no way that I would put any member above him. Yes, that’s totally unprofessional, but I want to make sure you get me.”
Judicial Watch has been a longtime critic of Hastings. When Democrats took over the House after the 2006 elections, Judicial Watch said he shouldn’t get a chairmanship he was in line for — leading the Intelligence Committee — citing his impeachment and removal as a U.S. district judge in 1989 on charges that he had conspired to accept a bribe.
A jury in a criminal trial acquitted Hastings. He maintained his innocence and was elected to the House in 1992, serving along some who voted to impeach him. He’s been re-elected since and is the longest serving member of Congress from Broward or Palm Beach counties.
Like all members of the House, Hastings, 81, is up for re-election in 2018. He has filed paperwork indicating is plans to run and has been raising money for the campaign.
Bob Sutton, chairman of the Broward Republican Party, said in a news release he wanted Hastings to resign. Sutton couldn’t be reached by phone, text or email to expound on his views.
Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and vice chairman of the state Republican Party, said he is skeptical of Hastings’ statement that he didn’t know until recent days about the financial settlement.
Barnett said there are many reasons he’d like to see Hastings out of office — but said he didn’t know enough about the case to determine if it warrants his resignation.