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WASHINGTON — Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, settled a 2014 sexual harassment claim lodged by a former employee, two sources tell NBC News, a revelation that represents the first taxpayer-funded settlement of its kind that has so far been made public.
Farenthold's former communications director, Lauren Greene, brought the complaint against him for sexual harassment, discrimination and a hostile work environment. Both parties agreed to settle out of court in 2015.
Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told House Republicans on Friday morning in a closed-door meeting that the Office of Compliance had made just one settlement for sexual harassment complaints, in the amount of $84,000 since 2012.
Two sources familiar with the case confirmed to NBC News that that settlement was for the complaint against Farenthold. That the congressman involved was Farenthold was first reported by Politico.
“While I 100% support more transparency with respect to claims against members of Congress, I can neither confirm nor deny that settlement involved my office as the Congressional Accountability Act prohibits me from answering that question,” Farenthold said in a statement.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is not calling on Farenthold to step down.
“The speaker talked to Rep. Farenthold earlier today. The speaker has made clear any report of sexual harassment is deeply troubling, and those who feel mistreated or violated deserve to have their stories taken seriously," Ryan spokesperson AshLee Strong said in a statement. "In this instance, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics investigated this claim and unanimously votedto dismiss it. Still, there are important questions to answer, including the use of taxpayer dollars for settlements. We will continue our efforts to reform this settlement system.”
But despite the Office of Congressional Ethics recommendation to to dismiss the case, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation, which is still open.
Farenthold’s payment to Greene was paid by the Office of Compliance, a little-known office that has received increased scrutiny since the issue of sexual harassment has gained prominence around the country and on Capitol Hill. The office was created nearly two decades ago after more than two dozen complaints of sexual harassment led to the resignation of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
When a settlement is reached through the office, the victim is paid from a taxpayer-funded account. More than $17 million worth of payments have been made over the past 20 years for various workplace disputes, but it’s unknown — other than Farenthold’s $84,000 payment — how much of that has been for sexual harassment claims.
Harper said he was never told the name of the people involved in the settlement but said in an interview Friday that "there were other allegations within that file."
In the court complaint from 2015, Greene alleged that Farenthold told another staffer that he had "sexual fantasies" and "wet dreams" about Greene. She also complained that the congressman consistently made comments to her to see if she was interested in a sexual relationship. Greene said these instances made her work environment uncomfortable.
Greene's complaint also alleged a hostile work environment created by Farenthold's chief of staff, Bob Haueter. When she complained to Farenthold, he told her that Haueter often treated women staffers in a demeaning way, according to the complaint. One month after she complained to Farenthold, she was fired. Haueter remains in his position today.
The House Administration Committee is conducting an analysis of the sexual harassment complaint process. Currently, employees file a complaint with the Office of Compliance and must enter into a 30-day counseling period followed by a 30-day mediation and then a 30-day "cooling off" period before a more formal complaint can be filed in court or with a House administrative panel.
The spotlight on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill has also revealed that at least one member of Congress has used a taxpayer-funded office account, known as Member Representational Allowance, or MRA, to quietly settle sexual harassment claims.
"We have to look at that," Harper said. "Of all of this, that is probably the biggest surprise for most members."
Rep. John Conyers, who is facing multiple sexual harassment allegations, paid a former employee $27,000 out of his MRA account to settle a complaint outside the official Office of Compliance system. Conyers has so far resisted calls to resign.
In addition, a sexual harassment settlement within the Office of Compliance is never reported to the Ethics Committee, the body that investigates members' alleged bad behavior.