By Houston Chronicle
Membership in the House of Representatives has its perks. A $174,000 base salary. Free parking (at the Capitol and the airport). Even access to a taxpayer-funded account that can be tapped to settle sexual harassment claims.
Former Rep. Blake Farenthold has left office in disgrace — and should immediately repay public money he used to settle a claim from a former employee. Congress also must end this practice.
Farenthold found himself in a jam in 2014 when a former aide alleged the Corpus Christi Republican had created a hostile work environment, sexually harassed her and then fired her when she complained. Farenthold, at the time facing re-election, was able to persuade the former aide, Lauren Greene, to drop her lawsuit and instead accept an $84,000 check signed by John Q. Taxpayer.
Potential scandal averted, Farenthold won two more terms before Politico broke the story of the Greene settlement in December just as the #MeToo movement began exposing members of Congress. According to allegations in a lawsuit filed by Greene, Farenthold shared sexual fantasies he had of her with other employees and “regularly drank to excess.” Farenthold first announced he would not stand for re-election before abruptly resigning this month.
We believe that was the right decision for his constituents. But he stills owes them $84,000. Even though Farenthold pledged to repay the funds himself, he has yet to do so. There appears to be no way to force him, since he broke no rules by using a congressional account to pay Greene. Though they may be chiefly concerned with distancing themselves from Farenthold, his former Republican colleagues are right to insist he make taxpayers whole.
We commend Gov. Greg Abbott, who has asked the former lawmaker to give that sum to his district to defray the cost of the special election now needed to fill Farenthold’s seat.
It’s ludicrous Farenthold was allowed to use public money to atone for his alleged harassment of a female employee. Congress should prohibit such funds from being used to settle claims of any member’s misconduct. Even now, all records of payments — from what member, and for what purpose — must be immediately made available to the public.
Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan is not much of a role model — he resigned Friday after using $39,000 in taxpayer funds to settle his own sexual harassment claim. But Farenthold should follow Meehan’s example by setting a timeline — in Meehan’s case, 30 days — for reimbursing the treasury. And please, Blake, don’t tell us “the check is in the mail.”
Farenthold is the just latest lawmaker to embarrass Texas. Refusing to repay taxpayers only further tarnishes his brief career in Washington.