Too many representatives chose to bloviate instead of interrogate — except for one.
But like so many congressional hearings, the fireworks were quick to flame out. Even with the tantalizing opportunity to grill Mr. Cohen on the myriad ways his former boss most likely sought to evade the law and avoid his creditors, many members of the committee, from both parties, could not resist their usual grandstanding.
Consider the line of questioning from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She asked Mr. Cohen a series of specific questions about how Mr. Trump had handled insurance claims and whether he had provided accurate information to various companies. “To your knowledge,” she asked, “did Donald Trump ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?” He had.
She asked whether Mr. Trump had tried to reduce his local taxes by undervaluing his assets. Mr. Cohen confirmed that the president had also done that. “You deflate the value of the asset and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction,” Mr. Cohen said, explaining the practice. These were the sort of questions, and answers, the committee was supposed to elicit. Somehow, only the newer members got the memo.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez continued, asking, “Do you think we need to review financial statements and tax returns in order to compare them?” She pressed Mr. Cohen for the names of others who would be able to corroborate the testimony or provide documents to support the charges. In response, Mr. Cohen listed the executives
- Allen Weisselberg,
- Ron Lieberman and
- Matthew Calamari —
names that, thanks in part to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, we will probably hear more about in the coming months.
These questions were not random, but, rather, well thought out. Like a good prosecutor, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation. She asked one question at a time, avoided long-winded speeches on why she was asking the question, and listened carefully to his answer, which gave her the basis for a follow-up inquiry. As a result, Mr. Cohen gave specific answers about Mr. Trump’s shady practices, along with a road map for how to find out more. Mr. Cohen began his testimony calling Mr. Trump a “con man and a cheat”; In just five minutes, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez actually helped him lay out the facts to substantiate those charges.
Their proposal would overhaul the process for filing harassment claims as laid out under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act and processed under the Office of Compliance. The bill would:
- Waive 30-day requirements each for counseling and mediation sessions before a formal complaint can be filed
- Create a new, optional in-house victims’ counsel position to provide legal advice and representation for complainants
- Eliminate requirements that complainants to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition for filing a complaint, although nondisclosures are still allowed as part of a negotiated settlement
- Create an online system to initiate complaints
- Require lawmakers to pay out of pocket for any settled claim where they are identified as the harasser. Other claims are still paid for by taxpayers
- Require public disclosure of the employing office when a claim is settled and to disclose the settlement amount
- Require an anonymous “climate survey” of congressional employees every two years
- Extend all employer protections to interns, fellows and pages
.. Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., another cosponsor, said he believed lawmakers would support more transparency for settled claims. “We are employers,” he said, “so how we would process that, how we would handle an employee if they were mistreated, or they did raise a concern, speaks to the character and integrity of how we operate our offices.”
Jackie Speier was a 23-year-old congressional staffer excited about her new job on Capitol Hill when her chief of staff got her alone in a room. The 50-year-old grabbed her face and stuck his tongue down her throat.
Now, four and a half decades later, the Peninsula congresswoman is leading the charge in Congress to clean up what she calls a culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol.
.. “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I think Congress has been an enabler of sexual harassers for a long time,” Speier, a Democrat who represents San Mateo County, said in an interview this week.
.. Speier is now the lead sponsor of a bill that would reform the Office of Compliance, the obscure congressional office that investigates — and, activists say, often covers up — sexual harassment.
.. The office “was really created to protect the harassers,” Speier said.
.. Her legislation would shake that up, prohibiting nondisclosure agreements as a requirement to start an investigation
.. The bill, which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has received bipartisan support.
.. “It does seem like it’s an Animal House up there right now — it’s disgusting.”
.. But Speier said that she knows that national attention can be fickle, and thinks that she and other advocates may have a limited window to pass reforms while the focus is on sexual harassment.
.. Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles newscaster, said she decided to publicly accuse Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, of harassing and groping her after interviewing Speier and hearing her story. Tweeden wrote in an article that she came forward because she wanted to have the same effect on other victims of harassment “that Congresswoman Jackie Speier had on me.”
.. Speier has said she knows of two current members of Congress, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, who have been accused of sexual harassment. Neither of those is Franken or Rep. John Conyers
.. The Conyers case sheds light on how sexual-harassment cases are handled for congressional employees. There is no central human-resources department for congressional staff. Instead, the Office of Compliance handles sexual-harassment cases, and requires people who want to report an allegation to do so within 180 days of the harassment and go through confidential mediation... According to the report, the woman alleged she was fired for refusing Mr. Conyers’s sexual advances and later reached a monetary settlement of about $27,000... Should a claim to the Office of Compliance result in a settlement, it is typically paid through an account in the U.S. Treasury. The Office of Compliance said last week that the government has paid more than $17 million in taxpayer money over the last 20 years to resolve claims of workplace violations, including sexual harassment, filed by employees of Congress... Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.) questioned whether “some members are using their taxpayer-funded office budgets to make settlements under the guise of severance payments,”.. Last week, 1,500 former congressional staffers sent a letter to House and Senate leadership calling for reforms in the way staff sexual harassment allegations are handled.