WASHINGTON — Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who has taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress, used thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle his own misconduct complaint after a former aide accused him last year of making unwanted romantic overtures to her, according to several people familiar with the settlement.
A married father of three, Mr. Meehan, 62, had long expressed interest in the personal life of the aide, who was decades younger and had regarded the congressman as a father figure, according to three people who worked with the office and four others with whom she discussed her tenure there.
But after the woman became involved in a serious relationship with someone outside the office last year, Mr. Meehan professed his romantic desires for her — first in person, and then in a handwritten letter — and he grew hostile when she did not reciprocate, the people familiar with her time in the office said.
Life in the office became untenable, so she initiated the complaint process, started working from home and ultimately left the job. She later reached a confidential agreement with Mr. Meehan’s office that included a settlement for an undisclosed amount to be paid from Mr. Meehan’s congressional office fund.
After this article was published online on Saturday, John Elizandro, Mr. Meehan’s communications director, issued a statement saying that the congressman “denies these allegations” and “has always treated his colleagues, male and female, with the utmost respect and professionalism.”
Mr. Meehan called on the former aide to waive the confidentiality agreement in the settlement “to ensure a full and open airing of all the facts.” Mr. Elizandro did not respond to follow-up questions about why Mr. Meehan had agreed to the settlement and the confidentiality provision if the allegations were false.
Sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men across a range of industries in recent months have prompted a national conversation about gender dynamics in the workplace, and the inadequacy of support systems for victims. In Congress, several lawmakers have left office or announced their retirements in recent months over sexual harassment claims.
Still, Congress remains a workplace where victims say they have few effective avenues for recourse.
Mr. Meehan’s case sheds new light on secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate and silence their victims.
As a member of the House Ethics Committee, Mr. Meehan is tasked with being a part of the solution. The panel has initiated investigations into sexual misconduct claims against at least four congressmen in recent months. Two have resigned: Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, and John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan. The other two, Blake Farenthold, Republican of Texas, and Ruben Kihuen, a freshman Democrat from Nevada, remain in office but have said they will not seek re-election.
Mr. Meehan has been pushing for protections for domestic violence victims since his time as a local prosecutor. In Congress, he has sponsored legislation mandating the reporting of sexual violence, and he is a member of a bipartisan congressional task force to end such violence.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, said that “this is new information to us” when asked about the settlement in a brief interview on Friday. Mr. Meehan’s former aide declined multiple requests for comment.
This account is based on interviews with 10 people, including friends and former colleagues of the former aide and others who worked around the office. The New York Times is not naming the former aide, who followed the recommended procedures for reporting harassment but came away from the experience feeling traumatized, according to several people with whom she shared her feelings.
Mr. Meehan’s family was close to the former aide, according to friends and colleagues, and she was regarded as an integral employee in the office, according to people who worked in or around the office.
They said Mr. Meehan seemed to favor her over other employees, so much so that others saw his favoritism as unprofessional. He expressed interest in her personal relationships outside the office, then seemed to become jealous in April when word spread through the office about the aide’s boyfriend. After Mr. Meehan’s professions of attraction and subsequent hostility, the woman filed a complaint with the congressional Office of Compliance over the summer, alleging sexual harassment.
The handling of that complaint — which included an aggressive pushback by representatives from Mr. Meehan’s office and congressional lawyers, who suggested she had misinterpreted the congressman’s behavior — demoralized the aide. It led to her estrangement from her colleagues, and isolation from friends, family and her boyfriend, according to the people in whom she confided. It set her back financially and professionally, as she continued to pay legal costs associated with the complaint even after leaving her job in Mr. Meehan’s office and struggling to find a new one. She moved back in with her parents and ultimately decided to start a new life abroad.
Mr. Meehan was represented in this process by two officials from his congressional office and two lawyers for the House’s office of employment counsel.
After counseling and mediation sessions mandated by the Office of Compliance, the sides reached an agreement that included a settlement and a strict nondisclosure agreement, according to people familiar with the process.
The exact amount of the settlement could not be determined, partly because Mr. Meehan’s office paid it from a congressional office fund that allows such payments to be disguised as salary and reported months after they were made. But people familiar with the payout said it was thousands of dollars.
Several of those interviewed traced the woman’s difficulties in Mr. Meehan’s office to 2016, when a senior male member of the office staff professed his romantic attraction to the woman. She reported the advance to Mr. Meehan, and the senior employee left his job after reaching an agreement with Mr. Meehan, according to a person with direct knowledge of the episode who worked in the office. Not long after, Mr. Meehan signaled his own romantic desires to the woman.
The aide’s dealings with the Office of Compliance left her feeling as if the settlement was not worth the emotional distress the process had caused, said the friends and former colleagues. All spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned that, if lawyers for Mr. Meehan or the House accused the woman of violating the nondisclosure agreement, her settlement could be withdrawn and her career prospects further damaged.
Other women who have endured the complaint process have suffered personal and professional consequences.
“I tried to get another job with another member of Congress, and I was blackballed. Nobody wanted to touch me,” said Marion Brown, who filed the complaint that led to Mr. Conyers’s resignation, and who was not speaking about the Meehan case. “And I’m still going through backlash, because he resigned without admitting doing anything wrong.”
Under federal law, accusers must undergo a confidential process in which co-workers who might be able to provide corroborating evidence are excluded. They often must wait about three months before filing an official complaint, yet they must initiate the process no later than 180 days after the offending behavior. Once the process is initiated, accusers must submit to up to 30 days of counseling and complete another 30 days of mediation.
Alexis Ronickher, who represented Mr. Meehan’s accuser, declined to comment on the specifics of her case. But Ms. Ronickher, who has represented multiple congressional aides who have filed sexual harassment complaints with the Office of Compliance, said, “Given the proven dysfunction of the process as we have it now, it’s critical that Congress act on legislation to revise the process so that victims aren’t re-harmed when they pursue their rights.”
Under the current process, settlements reached through the Office of Compliance’s adjudication system are supposed to be dispensed through a special account in the Treasury. But according to data released by the Office of Compliance, only one recent case involving sexual abuse has resulted in a payout from that office: Taxpayers shouldered an $84,000 settlement payment to a former communications director for Mr. Farenthold.
Other settlements — including the ones reached by the offices of Mr. Conyers and Mr. Meehan — have been paid through House members’ office accounts. Several proposals are pending before Congress to overhaul the harassment reporting process, and some would bar payouts from office funds.
Mr. Meehan’s accuser paid her own lawyers’ fees, and the settlement she reached was not enough to cover her legal and living expenses while she was out of work, according to a person with whom she discussed her finances.
The congressman has been regarded as a target for Democrats because his district, which is considered among the nation’s most gerrymandered, was carried narrowly by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
One of the leading Democratic prospects, State Senator Daylin Leach, suspended his bid in December, after he was accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching.