WASHINGTON — A congressional ethics panel is looking into allegations that Rep. Alcee Hastings sexually harassed a former staffer, according to a conservative group that first aired the accusations.
The Office of Congressional Ethics contacted the staffer, Winsome Packer, and is "reviewing the numerous allegations in the lawsuit," Judicial Watch attorney Tom Fitton said Wednesday.
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in March against the Broward Democrat on Packer's behalf. Fitton alleged at the time that Packer, a staffer on a House commission that Hastings led, was subjected to a "never ending barrage of unwanted sexual advances" and was threatened and intimidated when she tried to report Hastings' behavior.
Hastings' attorney, Tonya Robinson, said Wednesday that Hastings was "deeply disturbed" by the allegations and "in the strongest terms denies the charges. Mr. Hastings has stated unequivocally that the plaintiff's claims are untruthful and without merit."
Robinson said Packer's charges "already have been the subject of extensive counseling and mediation, as the plaintiff acknowledges in her complaint. In that context, the plaintiff's allegations were fully aired and found to be meritless, and will be shown to be meritless in court as well."
Fitton said the congressional ethics office contacted Parker in May. The panel — which does not include any sitting members of Congress — was established in 2007 in an effort to ensure that complaints against members of Congress do not go unanswered. It has up to 90 days to review the allegations and recommend to the Committee on Ethics — which does include members of Congress — whether it should review or dismiss the matter.
The panel would not comment.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims the harassment took place from 2008-10, while Parker and Hastings were working for the U.S. Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. Hastings served as chair and co-chair at the commission, which is an independent U.S. government agency.
According to the ethics office, it has the jurisdiction to review allegations of misconduct that occurred after March 11, 2008 — the date the House made the panel official. It can review allegations against members of Congress and their staff.
Judicial Watch named the Helsinki Commission and its staff director as defendants in the suit, which asks for monetary damages and a finding that Hastings and the commission discriminated against Packer, who is a Republican. She alleged that the "emotional distress" caused her "severe health problems" and forced her to leave her "prestigious position." She is seeking back pay, as well as punitive damages.
"The matter raised in the lawsuit certainly ought to be the subject of an ethics investigation," Fitton said. "These are allegations that involve his duties and responsibilities as a member of Congress."
Republicans took note of the office's interest, noting that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had once said Democrats would "demand the highest ethics from every public servant."
Judicial Watch in 2006 urged Pelosi — then the incoming House Speaker — not to pick Hastings to chair the House Intelligence Committee.
At the time, Fitton cited what he called Hastings' ''staggering liabilities'' listed on a financial disclosure statement.
Hastings owed millions of dollars in legal fees, and his office said they stemmed from battling bribery charges when he was a federal judge in the 1980s. Hastings was impeached by Congress amid allegations of misconduct involving bribery, convicted and removed from the federal bench.
He ran for Congress in 1992 and won a seat representing parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. He has been reelected ever since.