A small weekly Washington newspaper that specializes in issues affecting Capitol Hill reported Monday that Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) has a pattern of sexually harassing female employees, losing his temper and treating workers cruelly, and has used his office for political activities.
The front-page report in Roll Call, based on statements made by anonymous sources, claims that current and former women employees have been afraid to formally complain about Bates' alleged conduct for fear of retribution and of being blackballed from jobs in other congressional offices.
Bates, while acknowledging he can be a very demanding boss, branded the allegations as "unsubstantiated" and questioned the propriety of the newspaper's relying on unnamed sources.
"Have the rules of the game changed?" Bates asked in a telephone interview from Washington.
Allies of Bates speculated that, because the report comes six weeks before the election, it may be politically motivated, a suggestion spurred in part by a comment made by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) two weeks ago at a fund-raising event for Bates' Republican opponent, Rob Butterfield.
At that event Sept. 18 at a home on Mt. Soledad, Thomas told about three dozen people in attendance--including a Times reporter--that stories would soon be coming out showing Bates' "instability" and his rough way of treating his staff. Thomas said he hoped the stories would help the underfinanced Butterfield get more money from the Republican Party and private donors.
The newspaper Roll Call denied that its story was politically motivated and said the report was the result of an independent investigation that began in July when it first heard about the alleged problems in Bates' office from workers on Capitol Hill.
The story said 20 current or former Bates staffers and associates were contacted and that they related examples of Bates' alleged cruelty.
"They described him orally abusing his staff, harassing some of his female aides, throwing temper tantrums at slight provocations, and, on occasion, pressuring them into using his congressional office for political activities," the newspaper report said, noting high turnover in the congressman's office. "The staffers knew Bates' behavior was wrong, but, they said, they felt trapped. If they complained to the House Ethics Committee, they said, they risked being labeled traitors or liars. Congress offers no protection for whistle blowers."
Among the specific examples of alleged sexual harassment detailed in the report were the following:
- That nearly all of the women interviewed described Bates' alleged daily requests for hugs so he "would feel better" and have "more energy." While being hugged, several women said Bates "often patted their behinds and thanked them for being good."
- That one former aide remembered Bates telling her she had "pretty lips" and asking her whether she would sleep with him if they were both stranded on a desert island. The story said she answered "No."
- That Bates allegedly embarrassed a woman employee in front of a male constituent by staring at her breasts and saying, "Yes, they do look good, don't they?"
- That a former aide said that, in full view of the office staff, Bates approached a female employee who was sitting with her legs crossed. "Bates . . . wrapped his legs around her extended leg, began to sway back and forth, grinning, while he inquired about a specific legislative project," the newspaper said.
The Roll Call is a once-a-week publication that has been on Capitol Hill since 1955. It was bought in 1986 by Arthur Levitt Jr., chairman of the American Stock Exchange. Before the purchase, it was considered by many people on Capitol Hill as a dull circular full of press releases that attracted little attention.
Since then, say those in Washington familiar with the publication, it has started actively covering issues on Capitol Hill and is now avidly read by staff members, elected officials and members of the press who work there.
Shannon Bradley, the reporter who wrote the Bates story, said in a telephone interview Monday that the story was not politically motivated or intended to single out Bates.
"I learned about . . . I investigated it and then I wrote it. That's all there is to it," said Bradley, who explained that she interviewed some former aides as often as three times before she was able to gain their trust. She said she interviewed the 20 people to make sure the criticism wasn't limited to a few disgruntled people engaged in a conspiratorial effort to undermine Bates.
Bradley said that she talked to former aides both in Washington and San Diego and that the intent of the story was to show "the lack of recourse" available to women subjected to sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. As to the timing of her report and whether it may hurt Bates' chances of reelection, she said: "If it hurts him in his reelection . . . there's nothing I can do about it."
An interview with Bates to discuss the allegations was scheduled for last Thursday, Bradley said, but was called off. Instead, Bates' attorney asked the newspaper to supply a list of questions, which Bradley said she did. The attorney called back, according to the story, and explained that he should not "put (Bates) in the position of having to deny what we think are wild and unsubstantiated (charges)."
In an interview with The Times on Monday, Bates said of the report: "These are unattributed, unsubstantiated allegations. It's hard to respond to them."
"I think there's no question, I'm a hard driver, a hard worker," he said. "I push my staff to try to serve 635,000 constituents. If I've inadvertently offended anybody by my manner, or if my manner has been misconstrued, I apologize."
He said he couldn't recall any of the instances detailed in the newspaper story. As to how he treats women, he said: "I hope that I treat them with respect and professionally."
Bates said he refused to meet with the newspaper reporter because he knew she wouldn't be fair and that she had asked for an interview on one topic but knew in advance that she wanted to discuss the allegations.
The report in the Washington publication touches a subject that has dogged Bates for years. While a member of the county Board of Supervisors in 1978, the county Employees Assn. criticized Bates for his alleged "total disregard for the welfare of county employees." The organization attempted to mount a recall campaign against him, but the effort failed.
The 1988 Almanac of American Politics, a veritable handbook for those interested in American politicians, says of Bates: "He sees himself as an independent thinker, willing to buck the big guys, approaching each issue thoughtfully, ready to advocate unpopular stands like the legalization of some drugs in 1986. But there is a thin boundary between that and being unpredictable and unreliable, and many serious House members think he has crossed that line. He is criticized bitterly if anonymously for treating his staff capriciously and cruelly. He can say that congressmen are paid to serve constituents, not staff members."
'I'm Tough to Work For'
Bates said Monday in response to the complaints that have followed him throughout his career: "I am tough to work for. I don't think that should come as any surprise."
Two women who have worked for Bates are Xema Jacobson and Jackie Main.
Jacobson runs Bates' Chula Vista office and supervises his four caseworkers, three of whom are women. She has worked for him for 18 months.
"I've never seen anything close to the allegations that have been brought up," she said. "My relationship has always been very professional.
"My staff has never complained to me about the kind of stuff that was in the article," she said. "We're all shocked these allegations came up. . . . We find them outlandish."
Jacobson described work in the office as often "a high-stress job . . . there's certainly times when everything seems to be in chaos and everyone is under pressure." Bates, she said, "is someone who is very demanding on himself as well as his staff."
Main, who worked for Bates for six years between 1978-85 as both a staff aide and campaign official and is now editor of a community newspaper in Bonita, branded the newspaper report as "unfair."
"If people are going to make accusations," they should be named, Main said. "It's a slur that's out there, and it's too bad.
"He does have a temper," Main acknowledged, "but he works hard."
She questioned the timing of the report because it comes so close to the election. "To me, it's a little obvious," she said.
Opponent Sees Benefit From Story
Butterfield, Bates' opponent in the election, is an attorney making his first try for elective office. He said he will ask the House Ethics Committee to investigate Bates' treatment of his staff and may ask the Federal Elections Commission to probe the use of the staff for campaigning.
He said he thinks the story will help his campaign by showing that Bates can be defeated.
"Locally, it is perceived that Jim Bates is not beatable," he said. "I think this article will begin to turn that around."
Bates said his latest poll shows him ahead 65% to 15%, with the rest of the public undecided.
Times staff writer Sara Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.