Details of the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, are not new, but after resurfacing in this moment of heightened awareness, along with the of previously unreported revelation that he settled the suit with taxpayer money, the matter puts his job in jeopardy.
Indeed, on Thursday night, news broke that the Ethics Committee had launched an investigation into the allegations against Farenthold, making its decision based on new evidence raised in recent weeks.
Marked by specific dates and details, for those weighing Farenthold's fate, the suit is worth diving into.
Brought by his former communications director, Lauren Greene, in 2014, the lawsuit alleges he created a hostile work environment, committed gender discrimination, and retaliated against Greene by firing her after she complained about mistreatment. The suit was reported at the time, and the congressman denied any wrongdoing. A source quoted in the New York Times insisted Greene was fired for cause.
Approximately six months after Greene filed her lawsuit, the Board of the Office of Congressional Ethics voted in June of 2015 to recommend the Ethics Committee dismiss the allegations against Farenthold by a vote of six to zero, asserting "there is not substantial reason to believe that Representative Farenthold sexually harassed or discriminated against Complainant, or engaged in an effort to intimidate, take reprisal against, or discriminate against Complainant for opposing such treatment, in violation of House rules and federal law."
That judgment, of course, gives Farenthold and his supporters some cover now as he faces renewed questions about his conduct. But the Ethics Committee investigation announced Thursday could change that.
Without knowledge of the earlier investigation, however, Greene's suit against the Texas Republican has to be weighed against his denials, the Board's judgment, and his hefty settlement.
Her claims of sexual harassment in the lawsuit are fairly specific, making it difficult to believe Greene fabricated the entire account.
Here's a breakdown of the harassment allegations:
- "On or about February 11, 2014," the suit says Farenthold told Greene "that he was estranged from his wife and that he had not had sex with her in years."
- Greene claimed Farenthold's "tendency to flirt" and regular habit of drinking "to excess" lead staffers to joke they had to be on "red head patrol" at Hill functions to keep him out of trouble.
- Greene claimed Executive Assistant Emily Wilkes told her Farenthold "had admitted to being attracted to [Greene] and to having 'sexual fantasies' and 'wet dreams'" about her.
- Farenthold, she alleges, would compliment her appearance, comment on her wardrobe "and then joke that he hoped his compliments did not constitute sexual harassment."
- "On one specific occasion, Farenthold told Greene that she had something on her skirt and that he hoped his comment wouldn’t be taken for sexual harassment," the suit says.
- On June 10, 2014, Farenthold told Wilkes that Greene "could show her nipples whenever she wanted to."
Greene's account of her firing seems more complicated, as even her own allegations of hostile treatment against Farenthold's chief of staff Bob Haueter suggest he was unhappy with her professional performance, though she claims neither he nor the congressman had said her job was in jeopardy. One of Greene's complains of hostile treatment accuses Haueter of "bully[ing]" her into "committing to renting a car and finding her own way to each of the tightly scheduled meetings" that she was asked to arrange with 75-100 media outlets in Farenthold's district. Greene also accused Haueter of announcing in a June 10, 2014, meeting that he was sending her home to change because he could see her nipples through her shirt.
That last allegation, along with most of Greene's sexual harassment allegations, is more disturbing and clear-cut than many of the allegations involving disputes over her job performance. But in no way does that diminish her overall credibility. Greene's suit lists several very specific accounts (some of which are pinned to exact or approximate dates), like the nipple remark, the "wet dreams" comment, jokes about "red head patrol," and Farenthold's claim about his wife.
That he reportedly settled the suit for $84,000, and the Ethics Committee feels compelled to launch a new investigation, further suggests there is merit to the evidence, despite the decision reached by the Office of Congressional Ethics board.
The new probe will likely allow Farenthold to punt to investigators while he awaits a decision in some form, meaning even is he is ultimately forced to resign it could take some time. But in the meanwhile, don't expect questions about these allegations to abate.