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Grijalva cleared after ethics probe of $48k payout to ex-staffer

Dem Rep: Letter 'minimizes the lies associated with allegations'

Rep. Raul Grijalva has been cleared of wrongdoing after an ethics probe of a 2015 settlement agreement with a former top staffer, who had threatened to sue over claims the Democrat was drunk on the job.

The House Committee on Ethics voted unanimously to dismiss the allegation that Grijalva had misused taxpayer funds when the ex-employee was paid for several months from the budget of a committee the Tucson congressman sits on.

A TucsonSentinel.com investigation last year showed that Grijalva had arranged for the head of the Democratic minority staff of the House Natural Resources Committee — on which he's the ranking member and now incoming chairman — to be paid for months from the general committee budget after she was no longer his staff chief.

While he has declined to offer many details, saying he's still bound by a non-disclosure agreement, Grijalva has said the severance agreement was made after the staffer was fired. Grijalva decided she wasn't going to "fit in" with her post, he said. He acknowledged she then claimed he was drunk on the job, but denied ever being impaired while working.

A Dec. 14 letter signed by U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), the House Ethics chair, and Theodore Deutch (D-Fla.), the ranking member, said that "the Committee considers its review of the allegation closed."

"While this dismissal doesn't make the allegations go away, it minimizes the lies associated with them, and is a chance to move on and continue doing the job that my constituents elected me to do," Grijalva told TucsonSentinel.com.

Grijalva had been acussed of authorizing "compensation to a former employee who did not perform duties commensurate with the compensation the employee received."

The committee said they did not intend to "release this letter publicly unless you make public statements regarding this matter that are inconsistent with the text or spirit of this letter."

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Grijalva's office provided a copy of the letter after our request for it. The committee's letter followed an earlier recommendation by the Office of Congressional Ethics that the matter be dismissed. The House Ethics Committee is the only standing committee that is equally divided between the two parties (every other committee has been under Republican control). It includes five members from each party.

TucsonSentinel.com, in an independent probe of the settlement published last November, was the sole news organization to report the details and timing of the payments and recipient.

The former House committee aide was quietly paid more than $40,000 in severance in 2015, after she reportedly claimed Grijalva as creating a hostile workplace. Records also show she filed a Federal Elections Commission complaint, alleging his campaign staffers had embezzled from the Democrat's political coffers, after the settlement had been paid out. 

About a month into the woman's employment "it became pretty apparent ... (hers) was not the direction that was going to fit in," Grijalva said in an interview at the end of December 2017.

The Tucson Democrat, after consulting with other staffers on the committee, told the woman "she needed to move on to another job," he said. "It was difficult .... I'd known this employee when she'd worked on the committee previously."

As we had reported a month before that interview, payroll records showed the staffer had worked for Natural Resources as a general committee employee, before being tapped by Grijalva for the top Democratic staff post at the end of 2014, when he became the ranking member — the lead congressmember from the minority party.

Contrary to widespread initial reports by other outlets, the woman who complained was not an employee of Grijalva's congressional office. The Washington Times first published the story at the end of November 2017, saying an unnamed woman who "was one of his top staffers" had threatened to sue the congressman, "claiming the Arizona Democrat was frequently drunk and created a hostile workplace environment."

No lawsuit or formal allegations were pursued by the woman against Grijalva.

"On the advice of House Employment Counsel, I provided a severance package to a former employee who resigned," he said last year.

She worked in that position for just two months, beginning in January 2015, but was reclassified as a "professional staff member" working for the entire committee at the beginning of that March, rather than remaining an employee of the Democratic minority, payroll records show. The general committee payroll at the time was under the control of the Republican majority.

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She was then paid $48,395 through the first week of July, congressional spending records show.

The congressman, who as the top committee member of the minority party was allowed to hire a small part of the committee's staff, didn't offer any details about why he was dissatisfied with the staffer's work.

Grijalva said last year that after he "took the action" to fire the staffer, there were "claims of a hostile working environment, claims of drunkenness on the job."

The congressman said that "at no time was any allegation of sexual harassment made, and no sexual harassment occurred."

"Under the terms of the agreement, had there been an allegation of sexual harassment, the employee would have been free to report it," Grijalva said. "Regrettably, for me to provide any further details on this matter would violate the agreement."

The staffer also declined to comment when contacted by TucsonSentinel.com, referring questions to her attorney. Lynne Bernabei, a D.C. lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment and whistleblower cases and is representing the woman, said she "cannot comment on this matter." 

Grijalva has said he asked the congressional attorney who handled the settlement to ask the woman's attorney to release him from the confidentiality agreement, so that the entire file could be made public. The staffer has refused, he said.

If he were to provide more details, "the liability of $250,000 falls on me personally ... if I was a rich man, I might have done it," he said.

FEC complaint alleged embezzlement by campaign staffers

In December 2015, months after her final congressional paycheck, the staffer filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that she had been told that Grijalva's chief of staff and her husband "were engaged in embezzlement of funds from A Whole Lot of People for Grijalva," the congressman's campaign committee.

She wrote that she had been informed by a former fundraiser and a staffer for Grijalva the previous January that "campaign cash and checks had gone missing."

The FEC reviewed the case, and the alleged embezzlers, as well as the claimed sources, made sworn statements that there were no missing funds and that the latter couple had not discussed any possible financial irregularities with the staffer.

"There is no reason to believe" the allegations, the FEC's general counsel wrote, and the file was closed.

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1 comment on this story

Dec 19, 2018, 4:46 pm
-1 +4

The Teflon Congressman. His district will never hold him accountable, and now we can add the OCE to that, too. I guess Grijalva can just do whatever he wants to whoever he wants, and it’s all good. smh

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva speaking on election night, Nov. 6, 2018.