Wayne Washington, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
A California congresswoman recently resigned after the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced that it was launching an investigation into whether she had a sexual relationship with a member of her staff.
But there is no indication that the committee — chaired by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton — has investigated Deutch’s Palm Beach County colleague, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who told The Palm Beach Post in April that he remained in a relationship with a member of his congressional staff.
Hastings, 83, has employed a disbarred lawyer, Patricia Williams, on his congressional staff since at least 2000. She has been paid nearly $3 million in taxpayer-funded salary since that time, according to LegiStorm, which tracks the pay of congressional staff members.
Property records show Williams and Hastings bought a $700,000 house together near Boynton Beach in 2017. The congressman’s district includes parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Hastings’ relationship with Williams has drawn scrutiny before, but the congressman has brushed off ethical concerns. He told The Post that he is unconcerned with the appearance of impropriety generated by his relationship with Williams.
“However it looks, it’s been looking like that for 25 years,” he said.
In February 2018, the House passed new rules barring members of Congress from having a sexual relationship with a member of his or her staff. House members who violate the rule could face sanctions ranging from a letter of reproval to expulsion.
Deutch was among the co-sponsors of the resolution that changed the workplace rules.
One of the rule’s main supporters, former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said Hastings is violating it.
“His flouting of the rules is legendary,” Comstock said. “This is open and shut. He is in violation.”
Hastings’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether the congressman continues to be in a relationship with Williams and whether that relationship puts him in violation of House rules.
Deutch, who has served with Hastings in adjoining South Florida districts since his own election in 2010, also declined comment on why it was appropriate to investigate the California congresswoman but not start a similar probe of his Florida colleague.
Before she was disbarred for misusing client funds, Williams represented Hastings in the 1980s when Hastings was impeached and removed from his position as a U.S. District Court judge. After he won a seat in the House in 1992, he hired Williams, who is listed by LegiStorm as his deputy district director.
In January, Hastings announced that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He told The Sun-Sentinel in July he plans to stand for re-election to a 14th term next year.
Figures from the Federal Election Commission show Hastings has raised nearly $126,000 toward his re-election.
Even as he battles cancer, Hastings, who serves on the Rules Committee, has continued to participate in committee meetings and cast votes.
Lateresa Jones, a Republican who has filed to run against Hastings next year, said the congressman should be investigated.
“Congressman Ted Deutch needs to grow some (courage) and do the right thing by the people,” Jones said. “This behavior is not acceptable. Alcee Hastings is not above the law.”
The Ethics Committee typically refrains from commenting on investigations, but Deutch and the top Republican on the committee, Kenny Marchant of Texas, did confirm reports that the committee had launched an investigation of U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif.
Hill acknowledged that she had a relationship with a campaign staff member, but she denied allegations that she had a separate relationship with a member of her congressional staff.
A British news outlet published intimate pictures of Hill and the campaign staffer, including one of them kissing. Hill says she is the victim of revenge porn at the hands of her husband, whom she is divorcing.
The Ethics Committee has argued that it has the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct that takes place between a candidate and staff members during a successful campaign for the House.
Hill initially said she would cooperate with the Ethics Committee’s investigation, but in the face of continued reporting on her relationship with the campaign staff member — and faced with the prospect that more intimate details and images could be released — she resigned.
The new House workplace rules were largely seen as a way to bring Congress in line with private sector workplaces, which typically frown upon relationships between supervisors and subordinates.
Because many of those who had historically alleged harassment were women, the new rules are particularly important to them.
But while Hastings appears to have escaped sanction, it is his female colleague in the House who resigned.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but I believe it is the best thing for my constituents, my community, and our country,” Hill wrote in her resignation letter.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., welcomed the resignation.
“She has acknowledged errors in judgment that made her continued service as a member untenable,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces.”
Last year, after several instances of taxpayer money being used to pay off women who alleged mistreatment by members of Congress, the House updated its code of conduct to require lawmakers themselves to pay settlements.
Hastings had been among those members of Congress who was accused of sexual harassment by a woman who worked on a commission he led.
The woman, Winsome Packer, said Hastings made crude sexual comments to her, touched her inappropriately and pursued her for sex.
Hastings denied the accusation. A lawsuit Packer filed was dismissed, and an Ethics Committee investigation found no evidence to support her allegations.
Still, Packer got a $220,000 settlement — paid for by American taxpayers.
Comstock said she and others found Packer to be credible.
“She approached me, and I believed her and I think the people involved believed her,” Comstock said.
Hastings said he did not know of the payment before it was made and insisted it was unjustified.
In barring the use of taxpayer money to pay off staff members alleging mistreatment, the House also updated its code of conduct to prohibit House members from having a sexual relationship with a member of their staff.
With powerful men in politics and entertainment losing jobs and facing a public backlash after being accused of inappropriate behavior with subordinates, House members hailed the changes as “historic.”
“Thanks to the #MeToo movement, the American public has made it clear that they have had enough,” U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said. “They expect Congress to lead, and, for once, we are.”
Deutch, who did not respond to requests for comment on Hastings, joined in the praise of the new rules, saying they were overdue.
“This bill will not only strengthen our out-of-date workplace protections, but it will send an important message to the entire country that members of Congress will be held accountable,” he said last year as the new rules were being debated.
Democrats were not in the majority when the House changed its workplace rules. Deutch was the top Democrat on the Ethics Committee at that time and became its chairman in January after his party regained the majority.
Hastings confirmed his relationship with Williams to The Post several months after that.
The new rules do not include a provision that grandfathers in a relationship between a member of Congress and a staffer that began before the workplace rules were changed.
Questions The Post asked Deutch’s office about Hastings were directed to a staff member of the Ethics Committee, who would not comment.
The updated code of conduct reads: “A member, delegate, or resident commissioner may not engage in a sexual relationship with any employee of the House who works under the supervision of the member, delegate, or resident commissioner.”
That wording offers Hastings or any other member of Congress in a relationship with a staff member a potential out: If House investigators can’t prove the relationship between the House member and the staffer is a sexual relationship, the House member could be in the clear.
Comstock said the notion that House investigators would need video or photographic evidence to prove the relationship is sexual is ridiculous.
“You’d never prosecute any inappropriate things if that was the standard,” she said.
Investigators could compile evidence by interviewing fellow staff members and anyone else who is aware of the alleged relationship, Comstock said.
That the relationship might be consensual does not mean it’s appropriate, she said.
“It’s about the rest of the office,” Comstock said. “What about the people who do not go home with the boss? If someone has a relationship with someone (on staff), how much work is being done versus play?”
Hastings told The Post Williams advises him on immigration issues.
“She’s worked with me from Day One,” the congressman said in April. “It would be one thing if she didn’t work. But she’s working today, and she has continued to work.”
As her boss, Hastings determines what work Williams performs and how much she gets paid. LegiStorm records for April through June show Williams was paid $42,103, which would equate to $168,412 per year.
No staffer for any other member of Palm Beach County’s congressional delegation gets paid more, and that includes chiefs of staff, typically the highest paid member of a congressional staff.
Comstock said she does not know why Hastings has not been investigated.
She praised Deutch as “a good guy” who “treated things fairly.”
But Comstock said some members — long-serving members at minimal risk of electoral defeat whose ethical issues are known but hushed in the clubby atmosphere of Congress — get something of a pass.
“There is a sense that there are people who get away with it and people who don’t,” she said.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.
©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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