WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan resigned from Congress Friday, a few months after a news report revealed that he had secretly used taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment accusation.
Meehan, who again denied any wrongdoing, said he would nonetheless pay back the $39,000 used for the settlement with a former aide. In a statement Friday, the Delaware County Republican also thanked his wife and family for their support, and said he wished he "had done better" by the constituents who were disappointed in his actions.
Debra Katz, an attorney for the former aide, accused Meehan of avoiding responsibility and a full review of his conduct by leaving office before the House Ethics Committee could complete its investigation into his actions.
Meehan had already decided not to seek reelection in the wake of a January New York Times report revealing his settlement, which was followed by an interview where he infamously described the younger aide as a "soul mate." But his resignation was effective immediately, and would end the ethics panel inquiry.
"While I do believe I would be exonerated of any wrongdoing, I also did not want to put my staff through the rigors of an Ethics Committee investigation and believed it was best for them to have a head start on new employment rather than being caught up in an inquiry. And since I have chosen to resign, the inquiry will not become a burden to taxpayers and committee staff," Meehan, a former member of the ethics panel, said in a statement. "I will pay $39,000.00 to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse for the severance payment that was made from my office account."
He said the payment would come within 30 days. "I did not want to leave with any question of violating the trust of taxpayers."
A press aide said Meehan would use his own money to repay the amount.
Katz said her client "has been victimized a second time by this process."
"Now that the investigation is getting too close for his comfort, he's taking the coward's way out and he's resigning, so he will never have any accountability," Katz said. "There's no other reason he would have done this. He could have resigned months ago when the allegations first became public."
She said the woman who accused Meehan had spoken to the ethics committee for hours and produced "reams" of documents to support her claim. She believed the investigation was moving quickly.
In his statement, Meehan, 62, said he is "deeply grateful to my wife who is so supportive, and who has made many sacrifices in her own career so that I could pursue mine in public service" and thanked his children.
"Though I wish my time in Congress would have finished in a more satisfying manner, I am proud of our accomplishments and thank the residents of my district for their confidence in me over the last eight years," he said. "I recognize that there are constituents who are disappointed in the manner in which I handled the situation that led to my decision not to seek reelection and wish I had done better by them."
Meehan settled a sexual harassment claim last year after the aide, decades his junior, said the congressman expressed romantic desires and then grew hostile when she did not reciprocate. She said the incidents came as she began a relationship with another man and planned to leave Meehan's office. Meehan, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, denied any harassment, but said he had developed a deep "affection" for the aide.
With Meehan's departure and a new congressional map in Pennsylvania, his seat was already seen as a likely pick-up for Democrats.
Meehan is one of four Republican congressmen in the Philadelphia area who are not seeking reelection this year, and the second, after Rep. Charlie Dent, to announce that he will leave the House this spring.
By law, Meehan's departure will trigger a special election in his district, with the date set by Gov. Wolf. The election could happen as soon as within 60 days. But Wolf could call one for later, possibly holding the special election on the same day as November's general election. The races could create confusion: The special election would be held under the congressional district boundaries established in 2012, while the general election will be under new lines imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier this year.
Wolf will decide the timing "in short order" a spokesman for the governor said Friday.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Ohio), the head of Republicans' congressional campaign arm, praised Meehan's decision.
"I fully respect Congressman Meehan's decision to resign," Stivers said in a statement. "I'm pleased to hear he will pay back the taxpayer money used for his office's severance payment. We must continue to hold ourselves to a higher standard."