The House Ethics Committee on Friday reprimanded Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, for his handling of sexual harassment allegations made by women staffers against his former chief of staff, Kenny West.
In its report, the Ethics Committee said Meadows failed to “take appropriate steps to ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination.” The committee also said it will require Meadows to reimburse the US Treasury for the “overpayment” of West’s salary, in the amount of $40,625. A spokesperson for Meadows told BuzzFeed News in an email Meadows will pay the amount.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics’ report, which was passed along to the House Ethics Committee, said multiple women staffers complained about West in October 2014. The women alleged he had engaged in “unwanted touching, inappropriate staring and unprofessional comments.”
The House Ethics Committee, which has no jurisdiction over West, determined that the women were “credible and their testimony was consistent.” They alleged West looked up skirts, down shirts, and engaged in unwanted touching, sexual comments, and inappropriate staring.
According to the committee’s report, Meadows arranged for an independent investigation of the allegations, which was conducted by a senior staffer from Rep. Trey Gowdy’s office. But once it was completed, Meadows ignored the investigator’s recommendation to fire West. Instead, he kept West in his role in the months that followed, which meant his responsibilities and salary did not change.
Meadows, according to the committee, put in place “restrictions” to keep West away from female staff members. But they didn’t work, to the point that a member of Congress approached Meadows on the House floor to talk about the issue, the report states. It wasn’t until Speaker Paul Ryan’s office got involved in April 2015 that West was removed as chief of staff, but even then he was demoted to a “senior advisor” role and kept the same salary.
The House Ethics Committee, for its part, found the “restrictions” problematic, and noted in its report that an “environment where only male staff have access to the chief of staff risks unequal treatment of employees based solely on sex.”
The committee also acknowledged Meadows took “important immediate steps” in restricting West’s access to congressional offices and keeping him from contacting most female employees, but ultimately concluded “he should have done more to address that behavior and prevent it from occurring again in the future.”
Rather than cooperating with an investigation by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics that started in October 2015 —which Meadows called “a costly and burdensome process”— Meadows wrote to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of his House peers. In the letter Meadows asked that the committee review his decision to continue paying West in the months following his resignation, noting that the continued payment was a “severance” and that West continued to engage in “legitimate official activity.”
In a statement Friday, Meadows said he appreciated that the House Ethics Committee acknowledged “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.”
“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 or burden this situation caused them,” Meadows added.
Meadows was found to have overpaid West by $40,625. An earlier version of this story misstated that the figure represented West’s annual salary.