Rep. Meehan's sex harassment settlement proves my points about NDAs

Once again, I wallow in the mud so you won't have to.

Only two weeks ago, I posted about non-disclosure agreements ("NDAs") in sexual harassment settlements, and how confidentiality often benefits the victims.

Rep. Patrick Meehan (official photo)

My post was in response to calls to make NDAs unenforceable. I thought that was a bad idea in the context of private sector claims and would harm victims at least as much as it would harm alleged harassers and their employers.

But I advocated doing away with NDAs when public officials settled harassment claims. In my opinion, the public interest in disclosure was important enough to outweigh the parties' desires for confidentiality.

Thank you, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), for proving both of my points.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Rep. Meehan -- who at the time was serving on the House Ethics Committee, which was charged with investigating claims of sexual misconduct -- had used public funds (i.e., taxpayer money) to settle the sexual harassment claim of one of his aides.

*Rep. Meehan is now off the Ethics Committee, and his re-election may be in doubt.

The former aide is not the person who disclosed the alleged sexual harassment or the settlement to the media.

Kind of a creepy situation, from what we've been told -- the Congressman, who is married, 62 years old, with three sons, allegedly became attracted to the aide, who apparently was way younger than 62 and Mrs. Meehan. After the aide got serious with a guy her own age, Rep. Meehan allegedly became jealous and angry, and started giving the aide a hard time at work. 

The aide then filed a complaint, using Congress's flawed process (they're working on remedying that now), and eventually she and Rep. Meehan reached a confidential settlement.* 

*Rep. Meehan denies that it was a "settlement" and says it was just a "severance agreement." Even if it was called a "severance agreement," it was probably a "settlement." Unless this was part of a staff layoff, which I doubt.

According to the aide's attorney, it was the Congressman who insisted on an NDA. We don't know that for sure, but it makes sense, since he would arguably have the most to lose if the allegations and the settlement had become known.

Well, now that the cat is out of the bag, Rep. Meehan wants to be able to talk freely about it. A mushy letter has been disclosed. (Scroll to page 5 of the linked pdf.) Meanwhile, the anonymous aide, through her attorney, says no way, a deal's a deal.

According to news articles, the aide quit her job, and left the country to try to get a fresh start. Disclosure of her identity, or details about her allegations, would make it a lot harder for her to move on. Thus proving my point #1, that NDAs often work to the benefit of the alleged victims.

Regarding point #2, if sexual harassment settlements by public officials were a matter of public record, then from day one Rep. Meehan would have been able to speak freely and to defend himself. (As would the former aide.)

So, what now? Maybe the Congressman could reopen negotiations with the former aide, and pay her more money in exchange for being allowed to talk. 

What do you think? So crazy it might work!

Although I hope he'd use his own money this time instead of ours.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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