Four months after U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold promised to repay an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement funded by taxpayers — and 11 days after the Republican resigned his Corpus Christi seat — he has yet to write a check. And with Farenthold out of public office and increasingly out of the public eye, there's little anyone can do to force him.
Farenthold pledged last winter to personally repay the cash paid out by the federal government to a former staffer, Lauren Greene, who sued him for sexual harassment in 2014. When news of the settlement surfaced in December, Farenthold told a local TV station he’d reimburse the money that same week, saying “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for this.” In January, he said he would wait to repay the money until after seeing what changes Congress would make to policies around the issue, saying he wanted to consult legal counsel.
Then, he resigned abruptly on April 6 — days before the House Ethics Committee, which was investigating his misconduct, would have released its findings in his case, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has led efforts to reform Congress’s sexual harassment complaint process. After leaving public office, Farenthold immediately shut down his social media accounts and went silent. Requests for comment to his former staff were not returned. (On Tuesday, Speier told the Huffington Post that the committee had given Farenthold a heads-up that it was about to rule against him, likely prompting his resignation)
The House committee no longer has jurisdiction to investigate Farenthold, though its members called on him “in the strongest possible terms” to return the money. But there’s no legal avenue to force Farenthold to repay the money — meaning the only option is “public shame,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“He does not seem like someone who is easily shamed,” Libowitz said. “When this came to light, he said that he would pay it back, then started looking for more and more reasons to delay the payment. It became pretty clear that if he wasn’t forced to pay it back — which legally he’s not required to — he didn’t seem all that interested in it.”
Public pressure from both sides of the aisle has yet to move Farenthold. Top Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called for him to pay back the money.
"I hope Blake is true to his word and pays back the $84,000 of taxpayer money he used as a settlement," Stivers said following the news of Farenthold's resignation. "Congress must hold ourselves to a higher standard and regain the trust of the American people."
Both Republicans vying to replace Farenthold in the House — former Texas Water Development Board Chairman Bech Bruun and former Victoria County GOP Chairman Michael Cloud – have said the district deserves a representative with more integrity. Bruun said he hopes Farenthold will honor his promise "so that we can close this chapter."
And weeks before Farenthold's resignation, Speier asked Ryan to force Farenthold to pay up — to no avail.
“Blake Farenthold exploits his employees, uses taxpayers’ money to cut a secret settlement for $84,000, promises to pay back that money, then abruptly quits with no mention of what he owes the American taxpayers," Speier said Monday. "I would ask if he has any shame, but I think we all know the answer to that question.”
But beyond public exhortations — and, perhaps, public embarrassment — lawmakers have little power over Farenthold.
“The only avenue is public pressure," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the ethics watchdog Public Citizen.
And public scrutiny fades more with every day that passes, ethics advocates said.
While hefty, the sum might not be out of reach for Farenthold, who is worth well over $2 million, according to his most recent financial disclosure form.
Experts say he might even be able to use money from his campaign account. Current and former members of Congress may use campaign funds for activities related to their races or work while in office. But a sexual harassment suit stemming from work in his congressional office is a “gray area,” said Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center.
“There might be an argument that yes, it was sufficiently connected to his officeholder duties that it is an appropriate use of campaign funds,” said Dan Weiner, a campaign finance expert at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice. “But I would be tempted to say, look, sexual harassment was not in the furtherance of his official duties nor for any campaign purposes — that it happened to take place at work is immaterial.”
Even if he could use that money, he'd still have to dip into his personal finances. Farenthold has less than $55,000 left in his campaign account.
News of the $84,000 settlement paid by the obscure Office of Compliance surfaced in December at the height of a national reckoning on the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Greene, Farenthold's former communications director, accused him of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and a hostile work environment in 2014. The two reached a settlement in 2015, but details of the agreement weren't public until last year.
Farenthold announced in December that he wouldn’t seek re-election, prompting an open-seat race to replace him. He started in Congress in 2011, serving on the Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary and Transportation committees. But his political legacy is likely to be the cloud of shame under which he resigned, critics say.
“It’s going to haunt him no matter what he does,” Holman said. “If he has the resources, it would just be so much easier for him to pay it off.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.