The Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus is already under investigation for paying his chief of staff, Kenny West, after he was let go for harassment.
SAM STEIN 01.16.18 9:17 PM ET
The House Committee on Ethics is still investigating Rep. Mark Meadows’ (R-NC) handling of sexual harassment complaints against his former chief of staff, numerous sources have confirmed to The Daily Beast.
And though the primary source of interest has been why Meadows, the Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, continued to pay his former top aide Kenny West long after complaints were made about West’s behavior and even following West’s termination, another wrinkle has recently emerged. A former Meadows aide has testified to the committee that top staff and, perhaps, even Meadows himself were made aware of West’s behavior far earlier than has been publicly reported.
A previous report by the Office of Congressional Ethics (a wholly different body from the House Committee on Ethics) said that red flags about West were first raised by female staffers in October 2014. The former Meadows aide who testified to the House committee last week said the issue was, in fact, discussed among staff months earlier.
“It was strange to me that these allegations were spoken of in the congressman’s office as early as spring 2014 but no solid action was taken and that if these allegations were true, why someone would remain on staff,” the staffer told The Daily Beast.
Meadow’s office declined to comment for this story. The OCE report said, and other aides to the congressman insisted, that Meadows was unaware of West’s behavior prior to October 2014. West himself continues to deny that he had ever sexually harassed anyone at all.
“There is nothing there. There may be differences of opinion but there is nothing there,” West said in an interview. “There was no allegation. You all are choosing phrases that do not exist.”
The complexity of these timeline and the contradictory assertions about culpability could pose problems for Meadows, who has already been criticized for his handling of the West matter. They also illustrate some larger truths about the institution of Congress itself: There was and still is no simple mechanism for resolving complaints of sexual harassment.
This is especially true in incidents where the person accused of harassment is the person tasked with helping handle and adjudicate such claims.
Such was the case with West. In January 2013, he was hired as Meadows chief of staff after having run against the congressman during the 2012 GOP primary. It was an odd hire for that reason. But his conduct at work soon also became highly problematic. According to the OCE report, a group of female employees began feeling uncomfortable with how he communicated, commented on their outfits, and physically interacted with them.
Though the former Meadows aide said such complaints were aired in the spring of 2014, the OCE report said that it was in October 2014 that “a group of employees… reported to the then-Deputy Chief of Staff that they were uncomfortable with Mr. West’s inappropriate behavior towards them.”
Clay McCreary, a field representative for Meadows, said he didn’t want to comment on the specific date but he would “strongly advise against reporting” that red flags were raised prior to the fall. Another former Meadows aide (not the one who testified before the Ethics Committee) said that it is “probably the case” that the issue was raised before October 2014 to Meadows’ deputies but not to Meadows himself.
“My memory was [Meadows] was shocked by it and upset we didn’t bring it to him sooner,” the aide added.
How long Meadows knew about the complaints could well determine the level of his responsibility in the subsequent handling of the matter. Even those sympathetic to the congressman admit it could have been handled better. But they also note that Meadows was faced with a quandary, regardless of when he found out his staff’s discomfort with West.
Normally, when such sexual harassment complaints are made, it is the chief of staff’s job to deal with them. But West was the chief of staff. So Meadows asked his friend and colleague, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), for advice. Gowdy relayed that his own chief of staff had experience handling such issues and he “lent her”—as one source described it—to Meadows for a short period of time to help sort things out.
Gowdy’s chief of staff, sources said, encouraged Meadows to quickly fire West. But the issue lingered. In November 2014, Meadows told staff that West wouldn’t be back in the office. As the Huffington Post reported, Meadows even launched a “tip line” that allowed disgruntled federal employees to talk about their office experiences.
But even though West wasn’t there in person, he continued to communicate with Meadow’s staffers. Communications continued to at least March 2015, the OCE report found.
At some point, it became nearly untenable. Numerous congressional sources confirmed that Gowdy actually confronted Meadows on the House floor that he needed to fully cut West off. On April 9, 2015, Meadows officially changed West’s title from chief of staff to “senior adviser.” On May 31, 2015, he filed a form notifying that West’s employment was terminated. West, however, would continue getting checks until Aug. 15, 2015. All told, from April 1 through Aug. 15, West received more than $58,000 from Meadow’s congressional office.
It is precisely because West was paid so long after he was formally let go that Meadow’s office became the subject of an investigation. The House Ethics Manual dictates that, “compensation may be received only for duties performed within the preceding month.” Meadows office said that West was receiving, merely, vacation and severance pay.
Left unsaid in the OCE report was another issue that colored Meadows’ thinking. According to one of the former aides, West insisted that he had done nothing wrong and even threatened to sue Meadows for wrongful termination. Indeed, to this day, West insists that there was no justification for his dismissal
“I don’t know [why I was fired],” he told The Daily Beast. “There are reasons for everything. I wish I had an answer. I wish I did. I really did. I have my suspicions. but they are just those. But I’m 60 years old. I’ve been married for 40 years to the love of my life. It was an honor to be chosen as Mr. Meadows’ chief of staff, the honor of my life. I was asked if I’d change anything, and I wouldn’t.”
Ultimately the Office of Congressional Ethics determined that Meadows likely violated House rules by continuing to pay West. In March 2016, it referred its investigation into the matter to the House Committee on Ethics, which is, among other things, determining whether the payments constituted settlement money, according to Politico. There is no indication when the House Committee on Ethics will wrap up its probe into the matter. A committee spokesperson declined to comment.