WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan saw his political future thrown into doubt Saturday after a report that the Delaware County Republican quietly used thousands of taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual-harassment claim from a former aide.
House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly removed Meehan from the House Ethics Committee and said the congressman would be investigated by the panel. Ryan also urged Meehan to pay taxpayers back for the settlement. Gov. Wolf urged Meehan to quit office.
Political operatives in Pennsylvania said they were surprised to see Meehan – widely seen as a mild straight-arrow type – drawn into a harassment scandal, but they questioned whether his career could survive the news at a time when similar revelations have brought down powerful men in Congress, Hollywood and elite media circles.
Meehan, a former federal prosecutor who is 62 and married with three sons, professed "romantic desires" to a decades-younger aide last year and grew hostile when she did not go along, the New York Times reported, citing 10 unnamed sources, including friends and former colleagues of the woman.
Meehan, through a spokesman, said Saturday that he denied the former aide's allegations against him and "has always treated his colleagues male and female with the utmost respect and professionalism." Meehan did not deny the payment, or explain why he would have agreed to a payout and a confidentiality provision if he believed the complaint was false.
As an Ethics Committee member, Meehan was part of a panel that had been reviewing sexual-harassment complaints against at least four other House members. In April, he was one of four House members to launch a congressional task force seeking to combat sexual violence. The ethics panel will now add Meehan to those whose actions are under review, according to Ryan's spokeswoman, AshLee Strong.
The allegation against Meehan, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, surfaced as the country, and Washington, has seen a sharp backlash to sexual harassment. Accusations of misconduct have already cost several congressmen their careers. The Meehan story broke as a wave of women's marches proceeded across the country and it sent tremors through Pennsylvania's political circles.
"This disturbing report reveals systemic mistreatment of a female victim — both by Congressman Meehan and others with power in Washington. That is wrong and unacceptable." Wolf said in a statement.
Wolf, a Democrat, has been an outspoken critic of politicians caught up in harassment scandals. He has previously urged the resignations of Democratic state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment, including one of Meehan's challengers, State Sen. Daylin Leach.
The accusations may open up a significant opportunity for Democrats as they attempt to take control of the House in this fall's elections.
Meehan represents a moderate suburban district that Hillary Clinton narrowly won last year, and had already been targeted by national Democrats. But even they believed — before Saturday's report — that he looked like a strong incumbent well-positioned to withstand a challenge.
The damaging accusations against Meehan come one month after Leach, the most prominent Democrat running against him, suspended his own campaign due to accusations of sexual misconduct first reported by the Inquirer and Daily News.
"I certainly don't think Pat Meehan can run for reelection – it's over," said David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Committee. The county forms the base of Meehan's district, the Seventh.
The precise amount of the settlement payment is not known, though the Times reported the figure was in the "thousands." The money reportedly was drawn from Meehan's office account, a tactic that critics say permits lawmakers to bury such payments.
In his statement, Meehan said the public deserved to have a "true sense of the facts and circumstances" in cases of alleged harassment. But Meehan and his accused signed a nondisclosure agreement, and his statement provided no information about the allegations.
Meehan's spokesman said the congressman wanted himself and accuser released from the nondisclosure agreement "to ensure a full and open airing of all the facts."
"With respect to resolving any allegation made against the office, Congressman Meehan would only act with advice of House Counsel and consistent with House Ethics Committee guidance. Every step of the process was handled ethically and appropriately," Meehan spokesman John Elizandro said in the statement Saturday.
Elizandro added that Meehan believes there must be "real reform to the process for resolving complaints so that those who are truly wronged are given a fair forum to be heard and vindicated, and those accused are provided with an ability to respond to baseless accusations."
His accuser's attorney, Alexis Ronickher, rejected his request to end the confidentiality agreement and accused the congressman of using the proposal as a "political ploy," knowing that the former aide prizes her privacy and does not want her identity publicized. In an interview, Ronickher said she received the request only an hour before Meehan made his statement.
"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," Ronickher said in an earlier statement. "Now that it has become public – due to no fault of my client's – he has flouted his legal obligations and is speaking publicly. We will not allow our client to be victimized twice by this man."
Ronickher said that if Meehan "further violates" the confidentiality agreement, her client would have "no choice but to seek legal recourse." She would not comment on the details of the case or the Times report.
Ryan's spokeswoman, Strong, said the House speaker "takes the allegations against Mr. Meehan very seriously."
"The House is set to pass major bipartisan reform to the way the House handles claims of sexual harassment, and the speaker will apply these new standards to the allegations made against Mr. Meehan," she said in a statement.
Robert Walker, an attorney who served as chief counsel for both the U.S. House and Senate Ethics Committees, said he was troubled by the report that Meehan dipped into his office account to pay the settlement. While Walker said he didn't oppose spending taxpayer money for such settlements, he did not think they should be funded out of an account used to pay for work for constituents.
"That's not payment for work performed," he said.
Walker added that it would have "prudent" for Meehan to have told Ryan and his colleagues on the Ethics Committee about the settlement earlier.
A number of lawmakers have used taxpayer funds to settle employment disputes, dipping into office accounts to do so. They can hide the payments by stretching them out to look like normal salary, according to a senior House aide familiar with the process. The settlements don't have to be revealed publicly, the aide said.
Those secret payments to settle harassment claims at the Capitol have come under intense scrutiny as misconduct has been revealed. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) has sponsored a bill to require such payments to be public, and from a lawmakers' personal funds.
Meehan was like a father figure to the aide, the Times reported, but last year professed "romantic desires," including in a handwritten letter. When she did not reciprocate, according to people who worked with her, Meehan grew angry at her. This prompted her to file a formal complaint and eventually, to depart from his office, the report said. As they went through a formal resolution process, the accuser's career, finances, and personal life all suffered, the story said.
The allegations flummoxed Pennsylvania Republicans. Neither the state Republican Party nor the national GOP congressional campaign arm commented on the report.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant, said the allegations against Meehan put "the Seventh Congressional District seat in play in an even bigger way than it already might have been."
Meehan, first elected in 2010 after years serving as Delaware County district attorney and U.S. attorney, is serving his fourth term in office. Several Democrats are campaigning to challenge him this fall, and two — lawyer and activist Dan Muroff and IT consultant Drew McGinty — called on him to step down.
"What the hell, Pat Meehan? Sexually harassing your staff and paying a settlement with taxpayer money?" said a statement from Muroff. Said McGinty: "Meehan was voted in to support the best interests of the 7th District, but instead used his power to personally and financially attack a staffer."
As a federal government shutdown rolled on Saturday, Meehan did not show up for votes on the House floor.