WASHINGTON — The head of Republicans' congressional campaign committee called U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan "a good man" and "a great public servant" Sunday but said that the group would take "a serious look" at reports that the Delaware County congressman used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment accusation.
U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Ohio), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, noted that Meehan has denied the harassment accusation and said he wanted to learn more before deciding whether the group will continue backing the congressman's reelection bid in what is a battleground district.
"We need to take a serious look at this," Stivers said. "I want to make sure the facts come out but I'm not going to assume somebody's guilty until proven innocent. I'm going to make sure that the facts come out."
While praising Meehan as a person and representative, Stivers said the accusations are "troubling" and pointed to House Speaker Paul Ryan's decision to have the House Ethics Committee investigate the situation.
"That will bring the truth out and that's what matters," Stivers said.
The New York Times, citing 10 unidentified sources familiar with the situation, reported Saturday that Meehan had used thousands of dollars from his congressional account to settle a harassment claim brought by a female aide. According to the Times, Meehan, who is 62 and married with three sons, professed "romantic desires" to the decades-younger aide last year and turned hostile toward her when she rejected his overtures.
Getting to the facts of the case may be difficult. The Ethics Committee is slow-moving and highly secretive, and Meehan and his accuser are bound by a nondisclosure agreement.
If he were forced out of the race, it would open up a major opportunity for Democrats in a moderate district that Hillary Clinton narrowly won last year. Meehan was considered a formidable incumbent but the potentially damaging revelations come amid a national backlash against sexual harassment.
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, called on Meehan to resign as a result of the New York Times report. Several Democrats hoping to challenge Meehan also called on him to step down.
"No matter their party, members and candidates must all be held to the highest standard," said a statement from Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "As we've said before, if anyone is guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault, that person should not hold public office."
A Meehan spokesman said the congressman denied the harassment claim, had always treated colleagues professionally, and handled the complaint "ethically and appropriately." The congressman has not responded to calls for his resignation.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party has not commented on the report, and several GOP congressmen from Pennsylvania said Sunday that they had not spoken with Meehan or seen him since the news came out. He did not vote Saturday or attend a Sunday afternoon meeting about the federal shutdown.
Meehan was a member of the House Ethics Committee until Saturday, when Ryan removed him in response to the Times report.
Meehan has called for his accuser to agree to end their nondisclosure pact to allow the facts to come out. But the former aide's lawyer vigorously defended that agreement Saturday, saying Meehan insisted on it and that her client does not want her name publicized.
"Mr. Meehan demanded confidentiality to resolve the matter, presumably so that the public would never know that he entered into a settlement of a serious sexual harassment claim," the lawyer, Alexis Ronickher, said in a statement.