In 1988, 26-year-old Megan Bailiff was on the brink of what she thought would be a long career in public policy.

Just out of the University of Hawaii with a master’s degree in oceanography, she got a prestigious Knauss Fellowship through the Sea Grant Program sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bailiff was assigned to the office of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who was leading the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. The senator from Hawaii was a celebrated war hero who’d lost an arm during World War II. Known as quiet and effective, he was well-regarded among colleagues and on his way to becoming the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in U.S. history.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Bailiff. And it was a life-changing experience, just not in a way she’d ever imagined.

Megan Bailiff lives in Washington, D.C., where she runs a pavement striping company. It’s not the job she imagined when she started working in politics three decades ago. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Thirty years later, Bailiff now says she was subjected to continual sexual harassment by Inouye. But she says just as damaging was the wall of protection that went up from staffers intent on shielding the senator, knocking her off what had been a promising career path.

Behind The Story

Like many other women who are speaking out now about incidents that may have happened long ago, Bailiff says the #MeToo movement has prompted her to want others to hear her story.

Inouye died in 2012 and denied allegations of sexual misconduct when numerous complaints surfaced in the early 1990s. Civil Beat decided it was important to tell this story in light of how difficult it can be for people to speak out about sexual harassment.

This is Bailiff’s story, as she tells it. To corroborate Bailiff’s assertions, Civil Beat reviewed documents and interviewed others who witnessed the harassment or otherwise supported her story. 

Uncomfortable But Trapped

The inappropriate behavior started when she went into Inouye’s office one day to ask him to sign a document. Instead of just signing it, Bailiff says the senator asked her to rub his shoulders.

“It was immediately awkward,” Bailiff says. “But sort of couched in this elderly man sort of way.”

Inouye, who died at the age of 88, would have been about 64 years old at the time.

The massages became routine, she says — almost every time she went into his office, he would ask for a shoulder or back rub.

Bailiff felt uncomfortable but trapped. This was four years before Anita Hill’s landmark sexual harassment testimony to Congress against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. To Bailiff, reporting Inouye’s inappropriate actions didn’t seem like an option.

She also felt like everyone loved Inouye — he came across as a grandfatherly figure, old and disabled and quiet and unassuming — and she says she honestly didn’t think things would get worse.

She says she told Inouye staffer Jennifer Goto — now Jennifer Goto Sabas, who later rose to be Inouye’s chief of staff and is currently a prominent Hawaii lobbyist and the director of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute. But Bailiff says Sabas essentially shrugged.

“She was like, ‘Oh yeah you know, he just needs that, you’re not special, that’s what he does to everybody,’ sort of thing,” Bailiff says.

Sabas says she doesn’t remember this.

“Thirty years have passed since this alleged encounter,” she wrote in an email. “Senator Inouye is gone and unable to defend himself. I vaguely remember Megan working as a fellow connected to NOAA, but do not recall the specifics of a conversation about alleged harassment.”

But it turned out the massages were just the beginning, Bailiff says.

Inouye would ask her to sit close to him when they rode together to events and would put his hand on her leg, she says. Once, when she moved his hand away, he held her hand. She sat there feeling very awkward, holding his hand, wanting to move it but feeling unable to.

“I kind of naively thought this isn’t so bad, I can control this,” she says.

What Happened In Atlanta

In the summer of ’88, the Democratic National Convention was in Atlanta. Bailiff drove down with a colleague and says they spent a few days working for the late Henry Giugni, Inouye’s former chief of staff and close confidante who was serving as Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. 

Giugni died in 2005.

Two days into the convention, Inouye gave a speech about Israel that attracted lots of media attention. Bailiff says she stayed late to watch the senator do a live newscast with Hawaii, and afterward, he offered her a ride back to the hotel.

Here’s what Bailiff says happened next:

Megan Bailiff at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988. 

Inouye asked if she had eaten — she hadn’t — and invited her up to his hotel room for a late dinner. After they walked into the room, the senator asked her to sit next to him on the bed. She did for a moment but quickly got up.

“How do I react to this and keep my job?” Bailiff remembers thinking. “How do I extricate myself from this without offending the senator?”

Inouye followed her and put his arm around her. He started to talk about how lonely he was. She reminded him that she was married, and he replied, “I’m married, too.”

He went to the bathroom and she quickly called her colleague, another female staffer, and asked her to come to the room.

All three of them had a late dinner, and the senator regaled them with war stories late into the night. Both Bailiff and her colleague recall Inouye asking them to stay over that night. But they declined, and left around 3 a.m. without anything worse happening.

Bailiff’s former colleague supported Bailiff’s version of events but asked Civil Beat not to publish her name because she still works in Hawaii government and is afraid of retaliation from Inouye supporters. 

For the rest of the convention, Bailiff says, Inouye kept asking her to accompany him and talking about how lonely he was. He’d ask her to ride with him and even tried to put his hand up her skirt, she says.

Bailiff says she felt like there was nothing she could do.

“I’m on my own in figuring out how to navigate this because I’m politically expendable by everyone involved,” Bailiff remembers thinking.

The Fallout

After Bailiff got back to Washington, D.C., she says she eventually told Inouye’s then-chief of staff, Patrick DeLeon what happened.

“I don’t want you to tell anybody this. I am not going to cause any problems,” Bailiff says she told DeLeon.

But DeLeon denies this ever happened.

“She never talked to me,” DeLeon says. “I can’t quite remember who she is because it was so long ago. … If one of the staff or interns had complained about it to me I would have remembered. That’s something you can’t forget.”

But Bailiff says she was barely out of DeLeon’s office when he called Giugni, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. Giugni went around the office and asked her colleagues if Bailiff had talked to them about Atlanta and told them not to talk to her, she says.

A clip from the Honolulu Advertiser on July 20, 1988. 

Bailiff says she called up Giugni and told him that she didn’t want to make trouble for the senator. She says Giugni asked her how much money she wanted to keep quiet.

Bailiff says she told Giugni she didn’t want anything — but she felt like that didn’t satisfy him. Later Bailiff says she heard him yelling at Inouye saying he would never be alone with Bailiff again. 

But to Bailiff, the lack of access to the senator made it even harder to do her job.  

“You can’t be an effective legislative assistant if you can’t be in the presence of the senator,” Bailiff says. “The whole job is about having the senator’s attention. If you don’t have the senator’s attention it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Daniel K. Inouye gestures during an interview in 2011. Civil Beat File Photo

Among her colleagues, she felt stigmatized. She says office conversations hushed up when she entered. She was one of only a few haoles in the office and wasn’t originally from Hawaii. She had always felt like an outsider but after the DNC, Bailiff felt even more like she didn’t belong.

“Either I slept with him and I’m a slut, I didn’t sleep with him and then I’m a liability,” Bailiff says. “It’s palpable in the office.”

Bailiff says Sabas was unsympathetic.

“She said, ‘I tried to warn you,’” Bailiff says. “She said something about how, ‘I told you to be careful.’”

Giving Up On Politics

By the end of the year, Bailiff says, the pressure was starting to be too much. She was only a few months into a new marriage. She was attending law school at night at George Washington University, and her grades were getting worse.

“It didn’t make me feel like I had access to the town, to this career that I wanted,” Bailiff says. “I couldn’t quite figure out how to get past this in terms of the power that this person had.”

The memory of the last few months of her fellowship are overshadowed by feelings of judgment and disapproval. The glowing recommendation from Inouye that Bailiff had hoped would launch a career in national politics seemed impossible.

It was too much to handle. She dropped out of law school. She gave up on D.C. She and her husband decided to move to Seattle.

Ironically she ended up working for the Sea Grant program in Washington state. Bailiff says she eventually helped restructure the program to make sure that it provides more support for fellows who might find themselves in a similar situation.

In 1992, news broke that Inouye’s hairdresser alleged he raped her and repeatedly sexually harassed her. At the time, then-Democratic legislator Annelle Amaral said that she’d been contacted by nine women who had similar stories. Amaral is another one who, inspired by the #MeToo movement, has recently been talking publicly about Inouye’s alleged inappropriate behavior.

Although the accusations were highly publicized, the Senate ethics committee dropped the investigation because no women would testify against Inouye.

Bailiff considered speaking out then too, but says she decided to remain silent since doing so might jeopardize the career of her colleague, the one who was in the hotel room with her and Inouye, who was still living in Hawaii.

Despite the scandal, Inouye remained very popular and continued to get re-elected. Eventually he became president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency.

Speaking Out

Bailiff never filed a complaint about what happened during her fellowship with Inouye. But she told friends and colleagues over the years about the sexual harassment. Civil Beat interviewed two friends who confirmed Bailiff had told them about it back then. Civil Beat agreed not to use their names because both were afraid of professional retaliation. 

The harassment also came up in Bailiff’s 2011 divorce, records show.

Megan Bailiff in Washington D.C., in March 2018. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

After decades living on the West Coast, Bailiff recently moved back to Washington, D.C. She lives in a historic neighborhood with her partner and two cats, Pumpkin and Honey. She runs a pavement striping company with her partner and her brother.

It’s not what she expected she would do. She’s happy, but she wonders what could have been.

“It would have been a completely different scenario if I had been working for a man who used his power to support and advance my skills,” she says. “Instead I worked for a man who felt like it was another opportunity for him to get off.”

Bailiff finally decided to speak out in the fall of 2017 — she joined thousands of women in posting #MeToo statuses on social media.

But she’s also bracing for how her story might be received.

“I don’t have a story like (the hairdresser who said Inouye raped her) and the fact that people just sort of blew it off is astonishing,” Bailiff says. “The risk of it being dismissed — that’s a difficult thing.”

Now 30 years after the fact and more than five years after Inouye’s death, Bailiff wonders if anyone will listen.

“Maybe it will actually be heard,” she says of her story. But she’s skeptical. “I’ve been disappointed so far.”

Nick Grube contributed reporting to this story.

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