U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan acknowledged Tuesday that he had a deep "affection" for a younger aide and told her last year that he saw her as "a soul mate," but said he never pursued a romantic relationship with the woman and, despite paying her a secret settlement, denied her claims of sexual harassment.
Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, also said that he initially reacted "poorly" when he found out that the longtime aide, decades younger, had begun a serious relationship with another man and might leave his office. He released a heartfelt letter he wrote to her in May in which he wished her well, thanked God "for putting you into my life," and signed it, "With all my heart, Patrick."
His comments in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News were his first extensive response to a report Saturday that he used thousands of taxpayer dollars to quietly settle the harassment claim brought by the former aide.
The report by the New York Times was amplified in part because as a member of the House Ethics Committee, Meehan had been helping review sexual harassment claims against several other representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Saturday quickly removed him from the ethics panel, and the committee on Monday launched an investigation into his actions.
For Meehan, it landed as he already faced a difficult reelection bid in the Seventh Congressional District, a moderate suburban district, in a year that has seen a sharp national backlash on sexual harassment. In the 40-minute interview, the incumbent said he would not abandon his reelection bid.
Meehan confirmed the outline of the Times story, which said the married 62-year-old expressed his romantic desires to his aide after she began a serious relationship with someone else, then grew hostile when she did not reciprocate. After filing her complaint, she received a settlement and ultimately left the job, and reportedly felt traumatized by the entire experience.
But he denied harassing her, and said any hostility he may have exhibited stemmed from stress around high-pressure votes last year over the Affordable Care Act. He said that he sought to remain loyal to his wife, and that he used his office funds to settle the harassment claim so he and the aide could move on and keep the issue private.
In the interview, Meehan answered nearly every question asked, but would not disclose the size of the payout, which he called "severance," not a settlement. Asked why he chose to confidentially settle the claim using taxpayer money, Meehan said House attorneys advised him it was a practice that had been used before.
"I looked at it the way somebody might look at the customary resolution of a matter in which we can allow the parties to move forward," said Meehan, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. He also said he would repay the public funds used to settle the case, if the Ethics Committee concluded he harassed her.
Meehan said he and the woman had worked together for years and that she was a critical hub in his office, a "gatekeeper." That close working relationship, he said, led him to stronger feelings.
After professing his feelings to her one night last spring in Washington, he said, they exchanged a hug, as he said they often did, but "maybe longer that night than needed to be."
Feeling he had handled the news of her boyfriend "poorly," Meehan later wrote her the two-page note, which he said was intended to clear the air and encourage her in her new relationship — and which his office shared with the Inquirer and Daily News on Tuesday.
"As you bask in this moment of extreme joy I want to share with you my sentiment of how richly it is deserved. You are kind and sensitive and caring and infectious with your laugh. You are and have been a complete partner to me and you have brought me much happiness," it began.
Later, it recounted how after he and the aide spoke, Meehan visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and found the names of two soldiers, one named Meehan and another with her surname, near one another on the wall. "As I traced the monument with my finger, I wondered who they were and why their plans ended so sadly and abruptly. As we travel our paths together, I am comforted that there is more unwritten," he wrote.
The next day, the aide sent him a text message thanking him "for your very kind words and for your friendship," according to copies released by Meehan's aides Tuesday.
Asked in the interview if an employee might not have felt free to express discomfort after getting such a letter from her boss, Meehan said "in hindsight" he "should have been looking at it from the perspective of a subordinate and a superior." But he quickly added that in his office "there is no hierarchy – we call it Team Meehan."
He also said he felt "invited" to express his romantic feelings to the aide as they shared ice cream after work, and that he hoped that by expressing his feelings the two could prevent the situation from becoming inappropriate.
Meehan said he told the aide "that I was a happily married man and I was not interested in a relationship, particularly not any sexual relationship, but we were soul mates. I think that the idea of soul mate is that sort of person that you go through remarkable experiences together."
Later, he said, he wrote the letter to try to clarify his comments and response to news of her boyfriend.
"This was quite sudden, and it was also something that was going to separate the relationship that we had, and that was a big blow to me. By that I mean the relationship that each and every day, we work together," he said. "When I discussed her boyfriend, I stated that I wished I could be better at accepting it right now but I probably needed a bit of time."
Alexis Ronickher, a lawyer for the former aide, blasted the congressman for speaking so publicly about the situation after agreeing to keep it quiet.
"My client is going to uphold her end of the confidentiality agreement," Ronickher said. "She resolved this matter in order to put this behind her and keep her life private. She is not going to make a public spectacle of it regardless of what he does."
Since the news broke Saturday, Democrats, including Gov. Wolf, have called for Meehan to resign and protesters have gathered outside his Pennsylvania offices demanding he step down.