WASHINGTON - A former Congressional staffer is speaking up about her experience with harassment on the Hill in an effort to change what she says is a pervasive, cultural problem in Congress.
Rebecca Weir worked for a California congressman in the early 2000s and says she had a disturbing encounter after she met with him about a program proposal she had created.
“As I got up to leave, he stopped me,” Weir said. “And he said, ‘My God, you just look amazing today, just stunning, really. Would you mind just twirling for me?’ And I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. I was young. Here is a member of Congress that I respect, that I am working for, that I believe is trying to help all of America succeed and he is asking me to do this, and I didn’t have the capacity or the experience to say no at the time. And I complied.”
Weir says about 15 minutes after that, she got a phone call from the chief of staff for her office.
“(He) said, ‘Rebecca, I don’t know what you did, but congratulations, you’re getting a raise, or a bonus, effective immediately,’” Weir said. “And I knew exactly what I had done.”
She says she didn’t report anything at the time, and is only sharing her story now to help show harassment on Capitol Hill isn’t anecdotal or sporadic, but widespread.
Weir was among 1,500 current and former Congressional staffers who signed a letter calling for mandatory sexual harassment training in Congress and changes to how sexual harassment cases are handled.
The current process is not only drawn out and complicated, but arguably stacked against the victim.
After an accuser makes a complaint, the person has to go through mandatory counseling for about 30 days, then sign a non-disclosure agreement to continue to pursue the complaint. After that, there is mandatory mediation between the accuser and the accused, then a mandatory 30-day “cooling off period.”
If the complaint goes to court, the congressperson gets a lawyer paid for by taxpayers – the victim does not.
There is also a fund that uses public money to pay out settlements to victims of workplace violations. According to the Office of Compliance, $15.2 million was paid out between 1997 and 2014.
Weir says she is speaking up to empower others and change the system.
“Not for retribution, not for vengeance, but to seek change,” she said. “I don’t want 15 minutes of fame. I want a lifetime of change. Change for my daughters, change for all the women who are coming after me. That is what this is about.”
The former Congressman she worked for is Republican Gary Miller. FOX 5 reached his workplace Wednesday, and was told he is out of the country. An assistant said she delivered our message to Miller. So far, Miller has not responded publicly to this allegation. According to the New York Times, his wife said the allegation is false and an example of “yellow journalism.”
Also on Wednesday, members of Congress vowed to change the reporting system that they say protects the guilty and punishes the victims. Congresswoman Jackie Speier is leading the effort with the “Me Too” Act. Not only will it reform the reporting system, but it will also establish yearly sexual harassment prevention training on Capitol Hill.
"More and more congressional staffers are coming out and bravely telling their stories about how they experienced sexual harassment while working here," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "This is shameful. There is a serious sexual harassment in Congress and too many Congressional offices are not taking this problem seriously at all.”
If the Me Too Act becomes law, the names of people accused of sexual harassment will no longer be kept secret, and the guilty parties will have to repay all settlements back to the U.S. Treasury.