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Top Pa. Republicans give Pat Meehan benefit of the doubt

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R.,Pa.) is getting the benefit of the doubt from state and local Republicans as he contemplates his next moves following a damaging New York Times report that he had used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment case against him.

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., left, and Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., walk to a meeting with fellow House Republicans as work in Congress resumes following the August recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., left, and Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., walk to a meeting with fellow House Republicans as work in Congress resumes following the August recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite

Top Pennsylvania Republicans are giving U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan the benefit of the doubt as he tries to chart a path forward in the face of a report that he used thousands of taxpayer dollars to quietly settle a sexual harassment claim.

While a number of Democrats have called on the Delaware County Republican to step down, key GOP leaders acknowledge the report is troubling, while arguing in the next breath that there may be more to the story, if only it could be revealed.

Republican leaders' responses give Meehan space to consider his next move and decide whether he can ride out the political furor as he faces what was already expected to be a difficult reelection campaign in a battleground suburban district.

The GOP comments mirrored the tactic Meehan used over the weekend: raise questions by suggesting that a full airing of the facts might reveal more, while offering no hard information to contradict the initial story, which the New York Times reported Saturday, citing 10 people familiar with the situation.

Meehan instead issued a statement denying the harassment allegations and requested that his accuser, a former Congressional aide, agree to release them both from a confidentiality agreement.

Republican state party chairman Val DiGiorgio said in a statement Monday that the organization "is troubled by the claims against Congressman Meehan" and that they "must be treated seriously and fully investigated."

But he also called the congressman "a dedicated public servant for over three decades" and echoed Meehan's call to lift the non-disclosure pact. Like Meehan, DiGiorgio criticized Congress' system for handling harassment, saying it "denies transparency for both the complainant and the accused."

As the congressman ponders his political future, one local Republican leader suggested that Meehan, who passed on a rumored Senate run this year, may have been unsure about running for a fifth House term even before the explosive story.

"He may have had some doubts to run even prior to this. That's a decision he and the campaign will have to make," said Andrew Reilly, chairman of the Delaware County Republican party.

Reilly said he had heard of other Republicans considering a run for the GOP nomination in the Delaware County-based Seventh District.

Asked about the harassment accusations, Reilly noted that Meehan had denied the allegation.

Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican running for Senate, told conservative radio host Chris Stigall that sometimes news reports and initial stories are wrong.

"We have to let it play out and give both sides their due time to tell their stories," he said.

Meehan has kept quiet since the story came out Saturday. On Monday he cast his first vote since the revelations – to reopen the government – but then the House ended its work for the week, giving him a chance to stay out of the public eye.

As expected, the House Ethics Committee on Monday launched an investigation into the harassment claim and the potential misuse of public money – noting that Meehan had also requested the inquiry – but those reviews typically move slowly and reveal little to the public. Meehan was on the ethics panel himself, until Speaker Paul Ryan removed him in the wake of the Times story.

A lawyer representing Meehan's accuser dismissed the calls for ending the nondisclosure agreement as a ploy meant to muddy the Times report without providing any facts to contradict it. The attorney, Alexis Ronickher, has said Meehan insisted on the deal to keep the settlement secret, and that he knows his former aide wants privacy and will not agree to air the case publicly.

The aide, decades younger than the married Congressman, reportedly accused Meehan, 62, of turning hostile toward her after she rejected his romantic advances. They settled the case last year for thousands of dollars using the taxpayer-funded account for Meehan's Congressional office, the Times reported.

Democrats, including Gov. Wolf, swiftly called for him to step down.

"Pat Meehan should no longer be allowed to create the laws and systems which are meant to protect women and he should resign immediately," said a Facebook post from Molly Sheehan, one of several Democrats hoping to challenge him.

Elizabeth Moro, another Democratic candidate, posted about the story after Saturday's women's march in Philadelphia. She wrote, "This is the culture we marched against today."

Marcel Groen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Meehan needed to tell his constituents how much money was included in the settlement and how it was paid for. "I believe that the settlement of what appears to be significant dollars in and of itself is an admission you did something wrong," Groen said. "If you did, you should resign."

But Groen is not turning his back on State Sen. Daylin Leach, once the Democratic favorite in the race who has taken a "step back" from his campaign amid accusations of inappropriate conduct. Other Democrats, including Wolf, have said Leach should resign.

"Sen. Leach has not paid anybody any monies," Groen said. "He has not acknowledged any wrongdoings. Nobody sued him. I think that's very, very different. If he was inappropriate, that's for the people to decide — not for me."

The race for Meehan's Seventh District was already expected to be tough, and it might get even more contentious after the state Supreme Court on Monday ordered the state legislature to redraw Pennsylvania's Congressional maps to create less politically skewed districts.

Meehan's Seventh District was drawn to favor Republicans and considered one of the most egregiously designed in the country.