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Grijalva: Settlement came after staffer fired; denies drinking problem

Former House committee aide claimed hostile workplace, records show FEC complaint after payout

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said Friday that a $48,000 settlement with a former employee came after he decided she wasn't going to "fit in" with her post. He acknowledged she then claimed he was drunk on the job, but denied ever being impaired while working.

An earlier TucsonSentinel.com investigation revealed that just one ex-staffer fits the reported pattern of employment.

Grijalva spoke on Bill Buckmaster radio show, and while he is still bound by the confidentiality terms of the settlement, offered a few further details about the situation.

A former top staffer for a congressional committee on which Grijalva is the ranking member was quietly paid nearly $50,000 in severance in 2015.

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.

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."

The woman reportedly complained of a hostile working environment due to Grijalva's conduct, and later evidently filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging his campaign staffers had embezzled from the Democrat's political coffers.

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, 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."

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No lawsuit or formal allegations were pursued by the woman against Grijalva. Specific details of her claims were not available. The congressman, who as the top committee member of the minority party is allowed to hire a small part of the committee's staff, didn't offer any details Friday about why he was dissatisfied with the staffer's work.

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

Grijalva said the day after the Times piece was published that the newspaper owed him an apology for that "misleading" story, but didn't directly deny any of the details of the reported severance deal.

Friday, he said the employees complaints were "leaked to the Washington Times," noting that the New York Times and Washington Post "didn't bite" on the story. The Washington Times provided no attribution for its report.

"On the advice of House Employment Counsel, I provided a severance package to a former employee who resigned," he said, in a statement given to the Times and TucsonSentinel.com last month.

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 then. "Regrettably, for me to provide any further details on this matter would violate the agreement."

Grijalva told Buckmaster on Friday that he'd been "by implication ... swept up in this whole ugly and overlooked issue of sexual harassment and misconduct that has gone on in Congress for too long."

Grijalva said he was "surprised by the depth and width" of the allegations of improper behavior sweeping Capitol Hill.

In the staffer's case, "the rest of file was not leaked," said Grijalva, saying that affidavits in the settlement agreement file dispute the former staffer's claims "quite factually and accurately and strongly."

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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.

Grijalva, who's running for an eighth term in office representing Southern Arizona, said simply, "No, I don't" when Buckmaster asked if he had a drinking problem.

"Is the issue what are we doing about the (Confederate) monuments and what Trump is doing, or is the issue do you want to know how many beers I had on Thursday?" he asked.

Exclusive investigation IDs staffer

Neither the Times nor Grijalva named the staffer in question, but an extensive TucsonSentinel.com review of congressional payroll records demonstrates that only one woman fits the reported timeline and payments.

Meghan Conklin was announced as the Democratic staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee when Grijalva became the top Democrat on that committee at the end of 2014.

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.

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

With more than 15 years of Washington experience, Conklin took a post as the deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Energy after working for the Natural Resources Committee, and now serves as a policy advisor for Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Conklin 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 Conklin, said she "cannot comment on this matter."

Bernabei was sanctioned by the D.C. bar earlier this year for her role in the leaking of allegedly confidential information about General Electric by one of her clients, receiving an "informal admonition" from the Board of Professional Responsibility.

According to the story by the conservative Washington Times, which did not name her, the staffer was paid during the months-long period after leaving her position but was not required to work under a settlement that was not made public. That publication characterized the payout as a way to "sweep accusations under the rug with taxpayer-funded settlements negotiated by the House Employment Counsel."

The Times story said the woman who received the settlement had quit her job after three months; Conklin was paid about $28,000 as the staff director for committee Democrats in January and February 2015. The Times also reported that the total severance payout was $48,395 — the amount that Conklin was paid from the Natural Resources Committee budget when she was no longer the staff director.

A story by energy and environment industry newsletter E&E News in February 2015 said "Conklin's departure was announced to other committee staffers last week, although circumstances regarding her departure remain unclear."

The Times did not provide a reason for leaving the staffer's name out of their account, and did not disclose the source of their story that the former aide had complained about Grijalva's conduct.

Grijalva and his staffers have declined to comment about the details of the severance deal, citing the non-disclosure agreement. Several former employees of his congressional office said they had no idea who the woman referenced in the Times report might be. Grijalva has had one of the most stable staffs on Capitol Hill, with most of his top advisors having worked for him for years.

Staffers also declined to comment specifically about Conklin, again stressing that they were bound by an NDA and could neither confirm nor deny the identity of the woman who received the severance deal.

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FEC complaint alleged embezzlement by campaign staffers

In December 2015, months after her final congressional paycheck, Conklin 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.

Conklin 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, Amy Emerick-Clerkin and Peter Clerkin, as well as the claimed sources, Laura O'Neill Kaumo and Christopher Kaumo, made sworn statements that there were no missing funds and that the latter couple had not discussed any possible financial irregularities with Conklin.

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

Grijalva demands apology from 'lax' Washington Times

The Democratic congressman said the D.C. newspaper dropped the ball in reporting the story.

"Last week, the Washington Times contacted me seeking comment on what it described as a sexual harassment claim that, in fact, had never been made," he said in a late November statement his office provided to TucsonSentinel.com. "Once the paper realized its original story was provably false, staff regrouped over the holidays and decided to run a misleading article trying to link me to sexual harassment complaints made against other people."

"The fact is that an employee and I, working with the House Employment Counsel, mutually agreed on terms for a severance package, including an agreement that neither of us would talk about it publicly," Grijalva said then. "The terms were consistent with House Ethics Committee guidance. The severance funds came out of my committee operating budget. Every step of the process was handled ethically and appropriately."

"The journalistic standards at the Washington Times are lax and the paper owes me an apology," he said.

Republicans pour on heat

Arizona Republicans seized on the story to challenge Grijalva, 69, who's widely known as not being averse to a glass or three of white wine (as journalists from TucsonSentinel.com can attest, but only after working hours).

"These allegations absolutely need to be investigated and Rep. Grijalva owes his constituents an immediate explanation in regards to his behavior," said Arizona GOP spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair last month. "If Rep. Grijalva was drunk at the office, taxpayers should not be paying to cover up his irresponsibility."

No details of the claims about Grijalva's behavior were provided by the woman who received the severance deal. Grijalva said last month he couldn't comment on them because of the non-disclosure terms. Conklin's attorney refused to comment at all.

Grijalva denied drinking while working when pressed by Sarah Garrecht Gassen of the Arizona Daily Star on Friday's radio show. He said it would be a "very dangerous thing to do" to be impaired on the job, as people rely on him to make quick decisions.

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"I would never walk that line," he said. "I was not impaired or drinking while I was doing my job, period."

Congressional settlements common but quiet

Members of Congress have long been using drawn-out payments to make settlements with former employees fly under the radar. The Office of Compliance has paid $17.2 million over the last 20 years in more than 260 such deals, covering harassment claims and workplace grievances, the Washington Post reported.

The settlement in Grijalva's case was not made with the Office of Compliance, and he pointedly drew that contrast Friday, calling the OOC payments a "slush fund."

His settlement with the staffer was "not tied to the fund that everybody is — and rightfully so — that everybody is upset about," he said.

While not all those agreements related to sexual harassment claims, the topic has gained attention with the recent wave of allegations against failed Senate candidate Roy Moore, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and others.

Last month, Grijalva was among the first Democrats calling on Conyers to step down from his post as the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee while multiple women are claiming the longtime Michigan Democrat had sexually harassed them.

"As agonizing as it might be for all of us, the ranking member needs to step down at the minimum," Grijalva said in an interview with C-SPAN. "And then the chips will fall from there."

Friday, he said that he hopes the revelations "made a lot of people stop and think about their comportment — that it's not funny, that it's not a joke, that it's not a boys club."

The prevalence of sexual harassment "has been a truism unfortunately not only in politics but in corporate America (and) the entertainment industry," Grijalva said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva