Imagine this: A co-worker is accused of inappropriate behavior and you are asked to serve on a panel to evaluate that co-worker.

Your conclusions could result in punishment ranging from a slap on the wrist to firing to legal action.

Whatever the outcome, you will forever carry the burden of having played a role in your co-worker’s life, potentially ending a friendship, a career and an alliance.

Your name is Brian Schatz, and you are a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

Senator Brian Schatz in Washington DC office4. 19 jan 2017
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz has the unenviable appointment to the Senate Ethics Committee as members of Congress are being accused of sexual misconduct. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is not hypothetical. The Hawaii Democrat’s co-workers are fellow Senate Democrats Al Franken of Minnesota and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and maybe Republican Roy Moore of Alabama.

“Nobody sitting on the Ethics Committee is going to be having a good time right now,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for U.S. senators and governors for the Cook Political Report. “It is a fairly unenviable assignment, period, and when you have your colleague up it gets really awkward.”

Schatz is not talking publicly about his dilemma.

“Unfortunately, because of his seat on the committee, he is unable to comment,” said his spokesman Mike Inacay.

Duffy said it’s particularly difficult because Franken is well liked and has “by all accounts very good relations with colleagues. Most of the Democratic women who called for this investigation have not really rushed to his defense at all.”

On Tuesday, Schatz’s colleague from Hawaii, Democrat Mazie Hirono, told MSNBC that calls for Franken’s resignation are “a distraction.”

She noted that Franken has admitted to bad behavior and is cooperating with an ethics investigation, “which is more than I can say for President Trump, who has admitted to being a sexual predator” and is now supporting Roy Moore — “one liar is standing up for another liar.”

A Pervasive Problem

Hirono stressed that, for her, the bottom line is that sexual harassment is “pervasive in our culture,” and she said she welcomed “discussion, and debate, and decisions and actions” on how to prevent such behavior from happening again. She said she and every woman she knows has experienced sexual harassment “of one sort or another.”

Hirono does not serve on the Ethics Committee, but all senators could be called to act on the panel’s determinations. There is already talk that Moore, for example, might be expelled from the Senate as soon as he is sworn in next month, if he is.

Moore has not yet defeated Democrat Doug Jones, of course, and so we don’t know if the Senate will have to act on decades-old allegations of sexual molestation.

Before 1964 there were no congressional ethics committees or formal rules governing member conduct.

Menendez, meanwhile, saw his federal bribery trial end in a mistrial earlier this month, so a preliminary inquiry by the Ethics Committee that begin in 2012 (but was deferred the following year once the Justice Department got involved) has now resumed.

What seems certain is that there will be more sexual harassment claims in Congress.

On Tuesday the House Ethics Committee announced that it has begun an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Then, on Wednesday, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) admitted that a nude picture of him circulating online “is authentic,” Politico reported. He apologized to his constituents.

It’s not clear yet what led to the internet posting, which is under investigation. But politicians, journalists and Hollywood have all been caught up in what is already being called the Age of Weinstein.

‘Disorderly Behavior’

Schatz is one of three Democrats and three Republicans serving on the Senate Ethics Committee. Its counterpart, the House Ethics Committee, has five members of each party.

(Hawaii Democratic Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa are not members.)

The Senate Ethics Committee investigates complaints, allegations or information “from virtually any source” suggesting that a senator or staffer may have violated rules within its jurisdiction.

The U.S. Constitution states, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

Senate Hirono spoke at a crowded town hall on Oahu in May. She described calls for Al Franken to resign are “a distraction” but welcomes her colleagues addressing sexual impropriety. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

According to the Senate Ethics Committee’s history page, before 1964 there were no congressional ethics committees or formal rules governing member conduct.

Momentum for reform is reported to have grown after Bobby Baker, secretary to the Senate Democratic Majority, resigned from his job in October 1963, “following allegations that he had misused his official position for personal financial gain.”

Daniel Holt, the assistant historian for the Senate Historical Office, passed along this information to put the Franken-Moore-Menendez business in context

Nine senators were censored, denounced, condemned or suspended between 1811 and 1990. The most famous was Joe McCarthy, the Republican of Wisconsin, who was condemned in December 1954 by a vote of 67 to 22.

Fifteen senators were expelled between 1979 and 1862, including several for supporting the Confederate rebellion.

Fifteen senators were expelled between 1979 and 1862, most of them for supporting the Confederate rebellion. (They included John Breckinridge, Democrat of Kentucky.)

A recent survey by HuffPost concluded “more and more, lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct are resigning from office.” Six of the 11 resignations from Congress since the mid-1970s “stemmed directly from sexual misconduct” and occurred since 2006.

The most recent senator to resign was Bob Packwood, Republican of Oregon, who stepped down under pressure in 1995 for sexual misconduct and abuse of power. Packwood is the only senator to have quit under such a charge.

(Senate Republican Larry Craig of Idaho did not run for re-election after being caught in 2007 “with his pants down in a men’s-room stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport,” The New Yorker reported. That same year, Senate Republican David Vitter of Louisiana survived being caught up in the so-called D.C. Madam scandal, won re-election in 2010 but lost a bid for governor in 2015.)

The Packwood case is particularly instructive. A recent Washington Post story described him this way:

A socially progressive Republican who advocated for women’s equality. He championed issues such as abortion rights and family leave. He hired women to run his campaigns, promoted them to positions of power and supported their careers. Feminists loved him.

But Packwood also kept diaries, and they were shockingly revealing.

Packwood described women in objectifying terms.

An intern was a “cute little blonde thing.”

Another was “a very sexy woman” whose breasts stood “at attention” and had the “ability to shift her hips.” She and Packwood drank wine together and had sex on the rug of his Senate office, he wrote.

And she wasn’t the only one; Packwood wrote that there were “22 staff members I’d made love to and probably 75 others I’ve had a passionate relationship with.”

Packwood was the direct focus of the Senate Ethics Committee, which sent letters to at least 200 women who worked for the senator since his first election in 1969. It also issued subpoenas for the diaries, which triggered his resignation.

Former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood was forced to resign in 1995. Wikimedia

Packwood’s eventual demise came just four years after Clarence Thomas was narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be a Supreme Court justice — Anita Hill’s protestations notwithstanding.

Also happening during that time was Sen. Brock Adams, a Democrat of Washington, who quit his re-election campaign “after a newspaper quoted eight unidentified women who accused him of sexual misconduct over a period of years.”

‘Relative Silence’ Over Inouye

And then there was the matter of Dan Inouye, the Hawaii senator who survived allegations of sexual misconduct during his re-election in 1992.

A New York Times article that December contrasted the “relative silence” that followed after recordings of Inouye’s longtime hairdresser told “a story of nonconsensual intercourse 17 years ago and persistent gropings in years since.”

Inouye, who called the allegations “unmitigated lies,” won re-election by a wide margin.

“In large measure, political, civic and business leaders chose guarded silence, which some of them attribute to fear that the party machine, which controls nearly all state and federal positions and programs here, might derail their careers or strip their projects of government money,” the Times explained.

Duffy of Cook Political Report said the Inouye allegations lacked enough evidence as compared with the Packwood case, where allegations came from staff, former staff and others. The recordings were made public by Rick Reed, Inouye’s GOP opponent.

“It was a little closer to home and corroborated, versus the Inouye charge,” she said. “And when it comes from a Republic opponent, it looked awfully political.”

Sen. Dan Inouye with fellow Hawaii Democrats, Nov. 30, 2012. The state’s most revered political figure was once accused of sexual misconduct, but the charge was never proven. Ed Morita/

Despite the presence of a tape that purportedly supported the allegations, the Senate Ethics Committee dropped its review of alleged sexual misconduct of Inouye in April 1993 “because his accusers declined to participate in a fuller inquiry,” the Washington Post reported.

Inouye, by the way, led the Ethics Committee during the 2002 investigation of Sen. Robert Torricelli. The New Jersey Democrat would resign that year over his involvement with a campaign donor.

Inouye’s successor in the Senate, of course, is Brian Schatz.

It’s been six years since the Ethics Committee conducted a major investigation, and its work now could take some time.

One possible factor is whether allegations from decades ago, such as in Moore’s case, would be relevant. The two cases involving Franken date to before and after he became a senator. The charges against Menendez involve his time in office.

There is also the delicate matter of Senate balance. The current split is 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and two independents that side with the minority party. Already, passage of the GOP’s tax “reform” package in the Senate will come down to what three Republicans do.

Finally, there is talk that more allegations of sexual misconduct are coming, consuming the Congress in 2018 — a crucial election year.

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