Something is truly amiss in American democracy if elected officials and political appointees think they have the right to dispense taxpayer dollars as hush-money payments to sexual harassment victims. Not only is this an egregious abuse of public money, it helps abusers think they can avoid getting caught.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned after reports surfaced last month that he had sexually harassed a Capitol Hill staffer, then used office funds — taxpayer dollars — to buy the victim’s silence. The congressional Office of Compliance has paid more than $17 million for 264 settlements and awards since 1997 to federal employees who leveled accusations, including sexual harassment, at work, The Washington Post reported.

There’s no telling what the toll is at the state and local level. We do know that the Missouri Department of Corrections used public funds to settle harassment claims as part of $7.6 million in out-of-court payments.

Some legislators have simply opted to resign rather than attempt out-of-court settlements or other remedies. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is among them. But Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, doesn’t seem to understand the problem. He wants to stay in office and finish out his term rather than resign over allegations that he sexually harassed staffers and bought their silence with $84,000 in tax dollars.

Farenthold has announced he will not seek re-election in 2018. But he waited so long to decide, he missed the deadline to remove his name from the Texas GOP ballot. Now the state Republican Party has had to sue, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced “to be represented on the primary election ballot by a candidate with whom it does not wish to associate.”

If a member of Congress fails, say, to fix a rumpled office carpet that causes an aide to trip and fall, then it seems justifiable to use government funds to avert a negligence lawsuit. Or if there’s a fender-bender involving the member’s car while he or she is conducting public business, then it’s appropriate to use taxpayer funds to resolve a claim.

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But sexual abuse or harassment is not public business. It’s personal and responsibility for it rests 100 percent on the shoulders of the offending legislator. The same would hold true if the legislator was fined for shoplifting or smacking someone over the head with a pool cue.

The Republican Party used to be big on personal responsibility. Farenthold’s actions, his attempt to make taxpayers pay for his mistakes, and his ongoing efforts to stay on the government payroll should appall his colleagues.

Democrats were open and blunt in demanding Franken’s resignation, even though his offenses were less severe. Republicans, whose platform is based on morality and personal responsibility, should at least hold their politicians to the same standards.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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