Politics & Government

NC congressman reprimanded by panel over response to sexual harassment allegations

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows

Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from western North Carolina, must repay the government more than $40,000 after the House Ethics Committee found that Meadows didn’t do enough to address or prevent harassment by his former chief of staff.

Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, also received a reprimand from the committee, which began an investigation in 2016 after getting a referral from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

“Meadows’ failure to take prompt and decisive action to deal with the alleged sexual harassment in his congressional office was troubling,” the committee wrote in its report released Friday afternoon.

The case stems from allegations of sexual harassment made by multiple female staffers in Meadows’ office against his then-Chief of Staff Kenny West in 2014 and 2015. Meadows changed West’s title to senior adviser, but kept him on staff for months. West later resigned, but was paid his full salary for another two months and received travel reimbursement during that time, according to the committee’s report.

Meadows won his fourth term earlier this month.

“Making sure my team feels safe and secure in our office is the highest priority for me and I’m truly sorry for any stress this situation caused them. I thank the Ethics Committee for their work in resolving this, and my office will remain committed to serving western North Carolinians every day to the best of our ability,” Meadows said in a statement Friday.

Meadows told the committee he considered the payment as “severance” and that West was involved in “legitimate official activity.”

The committee found West’s salary during his time as senior adviser was not commensurate with his pay.

West was one of eight Republican candidates for a U.S. House seat in the 2012 primary, a race that Meadows won with 37.8 percent of the vote. West finished fifth with 4.2 percent of the vote.

Medows won the seat and made West his chief of staff upon taking office in January 2013. West made $155,000 per year at that time, though his salary climbed to $168,411 by October 2014, according to a timeline of the accusations compiled by the Hendersonville Lighting.

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The committee also found that Meadows did not act quickly enough to prevent future harassment by West. Another member of the House of Representatives told Meadows that his “remedial measures” had not worked, but Meadows did not remove West from his position until after the speaker’s office became involved in April 2015.

“West’s behavior toward female staff was inappropriate in every sense of the world,” the committee found, pointing out that “there is no place in any congressional office for looking up skirts, or down shirts; staring at a woman’s chest; unwanted touching; or making sexual comments, even if subtle or in jest.”

West, since he is no longer a House employee, was not sanctioned. The committee, however, wrote it “does not want to leave the impression that his behavior was appropriate in any way.”

Just like many movements for equal rights in America, the path for women to seek recourse from sexual harassment, from activism in the '70s and the Civil Rights Movement, has been through the courts.

The committee ripped Meadows’ solution, putting the word “solution” in quotes, to the allegations, which was to cut off contact between West and female staffers.

“An environment where only male staff have access to the Chief of Staff risks unequal treatment of employees based solely on sex,” the committee wrote.

On Friday, Meadows said he is thankful that the review is complete.

“I appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment of the immediate, appropriate, and good faith steps I did take after learning of my staff’s concerns — including immediately separating the chief from the accusers so they never had to interact with him personally during the independent investigation,” Meadows said in a statement.

Meadows will have to repay $40,625.02 to the U.S. Treasury.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC