Under Fire for Harassment, Congressman Says Aide ‘Invited’ Behavior

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Representative Patrick Meehan, Republican of Pennsylvania, last week in Coraopolis, Pa., after a trip with President Trump. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Under fire for using taxpayer money to settle a sexual misconduct complaint from a former aide, Representative Patrick Meehan, Republican of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that the woman “specifically invited” his intimate communications, and that he was emotionally wounded when she filed a complaint against him.

Mr. Meehan denied crossing the line into impropriety, but said in an interview that when the woman told him last year that she had started a relationship with someone outside the office, he “didn’t respond to it as well as I would like to have.”

He said he believed his attempt to make amends — a handwritten letter in which he called her “a complete partner to me” — was meant to be sign of respect.

“That I would find later that that was not something that she was comfortable with, really hurts me,” Mr. Meehan said. “This was a person who specifically invited communication with me so that she would be able to have the ability to be there for me.”

The New York Times reported that Mr. Meehan, 62, a married father of three, had entered into a confidential agreement to settle the complaint brought by the aide, who is decades his junior. She left the office after filing a complaint alleging that Mr. Meehan became hostile after she rebuffed his romantic overtures, sources familiar with the situation told The Times.

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On Monday, the House Ethics Committee announced that it had started an investigation into the aide’s accusations and the possibility that Mr. Meehan had “misused official resources” by using funds from his congressional office to settle her complaint.

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, said that Mr. Meehan should repay the amount of the settlement and removed him from the Ethics Committee, where Mr. Meehan had taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress.

Mr. Meehan expressed confidence that he would be cleared, declaring, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

He declined to specify the amount of the payment to his former aide, and also disputed that it was a settlement, instead calling it “a severance agreement with a valued employee who I felt a great deal of not only respect for, but concern for, and believed that that was a way to reward the work that she had done for me.”

But John Elizandro, Mr. Meehan’s spokesman, called the payment a “settlement” and said that Mr. Meehan “is prepared to repay the taxpayers for the amount of the settlement,” but only “if found to be guilty” of the allegations by the House Ethics Committee.

The disclosure of the complaint against Mr. Meehan comes amid a national conversation about gender dynamics in the workplace, and about the inadequacy of support systems for victims of sexual harassment. Mr. Meehan’s case sheds light on the arcane and secretive process for handling harassment complaints in Congress, which advocates say favors abusers, allowing them to use the resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate and silence their victims.

Mr. Meehan said that the way he handled the case was consistent with House rules and done “with the advice of counsel from the government that suggested it was a way to explore a potential resolution.”

He said it was his former aide who insisted on a confidentiality agreement, and reiterated a request she waive it to allow a full airing of the facts.

Alexis Ronickher, a lawyer for the woman, whom The Times is not naming, said it was Mr. Meehan who was flouting the agreement. She said her client’s privacy “is important to her, so she is not willing to discuss the fact of this case in the media,” but added that she intends “to fully cooperate” with the House Ethics Committee’s investigation.

Before news of his settlement, Mr. Meehan already faced an uphill battle in a suburban Philadelphia district that is among the most severely gerrymandered in the country and that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans in the state have mostly taken a wait-and-see approach to Mr. Meehan’s troubles. Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, issued a statement on Monday saying that the party was “troubled” by the allegations and that they “must be treated seriously and fully investigated.”

In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier Tuesday, Mr. Meehan said he told the aide that last year he “was struggling” to keep his feelings from interfering with his position as her superior, and told the newspaper that he had exchanged a hug with her that lasted “maybe longer that night than needed to be.”

Mr. Meehan supplied the newspaper with a copy of the handwritten letter he wrote to the aide last May, after he said he reacted “selfishly” when he learned that she had a serious boyfriend close to her own age. In the letter, he told the woman that “it is a very, very lucky man who might get to be your partner for more of your life.”

According to people close to the former aide who worked in the office, she was regarded as a calming force in a workplace where Mr. Meehan would often yell and put his staff on edge when displeased. “You go hardest on the ones that you care the most about,” Mr. Meehan told The Inquirer.

Some saw the former aide’s influence in Mr. Meehan’s decision to buck his party’s leadership in May by voting against a Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The bill went down in defeat, much to the chagrin of the Republican leadership and President Trump.

Mr. Meehan said in the letter, dated the evening the House voted to repeal and replace major parts of the law, that he had said “no” to the president and Mr. Ryan, and “yes” to her.

“As I walked this evening and glanced over at the White House I smiled at the irony that on a day that I had to say ‘no’ to the President and to the Speaker of the House, I got to say ‘yes’ to you,” Mr. Meehan wrote. “I hope that the former will be judged as a vote of conscience and the latter as an expression of care.”

In the interview with The Times, Mr. Meehan said he was trying to be supportive of her new relationship.

“‘Yes to you’ was ‘yes to this great relationship,’” Mr. Meehan said.

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