Thirty-eight years ago I was part of a contingent of journalists from my college who attended the National Governor’s Conference in Washington, D.C.
We attended hearings, saw President Carter speak and hobnobbed with the politicians and their staffs.
But one memory stands out greater than all the others.
Our group visited with then-Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky. I don’t remember what we talked about, but at the end of the meeting we all had our photos taken with the senator.
I still have the photo.
Sen. Ford is in the middle with his arms extended around the waists of two of my female classmates. I was on the outside next to one of the women. We are all smiling.
Sen. Ford was 54 at the time, a former governor of Kentucky and finishing up his first term in the Senate.
When we got outside, one of the women blurted out, “Wendell Ford grabbed my butt.”
I think we all laughed.
On Tuesday, I contacted my classmate to see if my memory was accurate.
She said it was.
“Sad that it never occurred to any of us that it wasn’t OK to do that,” she wrote on Tuesday.
If you connect the dots, none of us should be surprised by the recent allegations of sexual harassment from people in power.
Five years ago, I was writing about then-New York Speaker Sheldon Speaker making a $100,000 settlement payment — of taxpayer money — to two accusers of then-Assembly member Vito Lopez.
Lopez, who was 71 at the time, was eventually censured by a legislative ethics panel after being accused of groping, intimidating and manipulating young female staffers.
I’ve also written about the ongoing abuses in the military, where superior officers have been accused of pressuring rank-and-file men and women into sexual relationships and getting away with it.
We learned this week that the House of Representatives has what is essentially a slush fund to settle sexual harassment claims.
There have been 235 claims since 1997.
All a victim has to do is sign a nondisclosure agreement and cash the check and it all goes away. Approximately $15.2 million dollars in checks have been cashed so far.
That’s not right and it must end.
If ever there is an issue we should agree on, it is this. The public has a right to know where its money is going, especially when it is being used to settle sexual harassment complaints.
And men and women all deserve a workplace environment that is safe and professional.
In more than 50 interviews with lawyers, lobbyists and former aides, the New York Times was told that “sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those working in Washington politics.”
In other words, it is a cesspool of misbehavior.
An open letter signed by approximately 1,500 former Capitol Hill aides asks House and Senate leaders to put in place mandatory harassment training and revamp the Office of Compliance (the agency that has been paying the hush money).
Earlier this year, my company required me to sit through an hour-long videotape on sexual harassment, what it is and why it should be taken seriously.
I didn’t like wasting an hour of my time because the information seemed obvious to me. I suspect many others feel the same way. In light of the culture in Washington, maybe we are wrong.
Congressional members do not currently receive sexual harassment training.
But they do have access to a slush fund to pay off victims.