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For Some Reason, This Scandal’s Just Not Sexy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The latest Capitol Hill sex scandal has landed with a thud (except for the U.S. senator and female aide involved), and this is the best that can be said of what Washington has learned from a parade of ugly sexual harassment cases in the 1990s.

The details of the case are just as murky--if less sensational--than, say, when Anita Faye Hill said that Clarence Thomas asked about a “pubic hair” on his Coke can or then-Sen. Bob Packwood was accused of forcing his tongue into an aide’s mouth or Bill Clinton allegedly dropped his drawers for Paula Corbin Jones. Never mind his Oval Office shenanigans with “that woman.”

This month’s he-said/she-said episode seems almost like a Disney treatment of the sexual harassment problem: Among the married senator’s worst offenses is that he allegedly asked his unmarried chief of staff to go away with him--to the Magic Kingdom.

Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, 57 and a four-term Democrat, is being accused by his former chief of staff, Christine Niedermeier, 47. In the grievance she filed Friday with Congress, Niedermeier said that Baucus fired her because she had complained about his misconduct.

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Specifically, she charged that, in addition to asking her to accompany him on personal trips, Baucus repeatedly commented on her appearance, inquired about her boyfriends and suggested a desire to have a personal relationship with her.

The senator has vehemently denied her accusations. He fired her, he has said, because she wreaked havoc in his office and his staff was on the verge of revolt.

Although Niedermeier’s decision to file a formal complaint could ratchet things up, so far the capital has reacted with fatigue. After a decade’s worth of embarrassing publicity and painful lessons--capped by Clinton’s sex-related impeachment--official Washington seems weary of the whole topic of sex.

This time around there are no female lawmakers--their numbers since 1991 up to 65 from 32--charging up the Capitol steps demanding an ethics hearing. Quite the contrary: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), both aggressive critics of Packwood, a Republican from Oregon, have issued statements praising Baucus, a fellow Democrat.

Even Republican members are staying clear, though clearly some of their impeachment fervor was payback for what Democrats did to Thomas and Packwood.

“I think we’re all just sick of the whole business,” said a prominent GOP aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

But all is not lost in the rarefied world of Capitol Hill, where 17,000 people toil at politics and government day to day. Where once there was the claim that men simply did not “get it,” some women on Capitol Hill now believe that men at least understand the potential consequences of sexual wrongdoing better than they did before the days of Thomas, Packwood and “that woman"--Monica S. Lewinsky.

Yet, from the way Niedermeier has used the media to get out her story to how Baucus’ supporters--including his employees--have trashed her reputation or rushed to his defense, this latest case bespeaks how official Washington is no more eager to deal with sexual wrongdoing among its own than it was a decade ago.

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Despite a tough 1995 law that regulates sexual harassment in Congress, all the seminars and revised office handbooks on the issue and endless self-examination, Washington still has not found a way to dispassionately evaluate these cases without everybody getting hurt.

The stakes are higher and cases move faster in political Washington than they do in corporate America, according to Catherine L. Fish, a professor of employment law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“In Washington these cases become so high profile, and party politics comes into play from the get-go,” she said. “At a minimum the careers of both people are bruised.”

Niedermeier, a former Connecticut state legislator and candidate for Congress, already has suffered for speaking out, according to her attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft. She is “finished in this town. How could she ever get a job in Washington again after this?” asked Bredehoft, who denied repeated requests for an interview with her client.

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Baucus also declined to be interviewed.

Baucus’ aides also are worried that the scandal, which is getting big media play in Montana, could have an effect on his reelection prospects or jeopardize his chances for a Senate leadership position.

Although there is no irrevocable evidence, the sense on the Hill is that sexual harassment now occurs less often.

Lisa Quigley, chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Calvin M. Dooley of Visalia, meets informally with several women staff members in the California delegation to talk about shared concerns--from politics to problems with running an office.

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Does sexual harassment come up?

“Never,” she said. “We would talk about it if it were part of our lives. If it were, most of us (a) wouldn’t tolerate it and (b) would be the first to blow the whistle.”

But women like Quigley know all too well that there are still powerful men in Congress who are not above piggish behavior. And, although there are new laws and safeguards to protect female employees, sexual misconduct lives on Capitol Hill and “still makes a woman poison if she complains about it,” Quigley said.

Quigley and Gene Smith, chief of staff to Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), agreed that there now is a greater sense of the consequences of illegal behavior.

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“I think things have improved,” Smith said. “Sure, men get out of line, just less often. I think a lot of them are terrified.”

But when the accusations do start flying, it is just as much of a mess as it ever was.

The week before Labor Day, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that Niedermeier had been fired for her heavy-handed management style, which included berating and screaming at constituents as well as staff members. She insisted that the story was leaked by Baucus staffers.

Baucus fired Niedermeier in August, and her attorney said she had not planned to go public with her belief that she was being punished for refusing his advances. But, Bredehoft said, after Niedermeier learned of the article, she told Roll Call about the alleged harassment.

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Baucus produced a petition--which his employees said began circulating at least a week before he fired her--signed by 34 of his 39 employees backing his claim that he faced a walkout if he did not fire her.

Former employees said they did not believe Baucus would get out of line because, as one former aide put it, “that’s just not Max’s style. Plus, Wanda would have his head.” Wanda Baucus is the senator’s wife.

She has dismissed Niedermeier’s claims about her husband.

Niedermeier has said through her lawyer that, if she was tough on the staff, she was doing Baucus’ bidding. She insisted that the staff petition was a sham thrown together to substantiate Baucus’ version of events.

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“Christine took Baucus’ abuse for the 15 months she worked for Baucus because she loved her job,” Bredehoft said.

Niedermeier could have taken her complaint to several congressional authorities, including the Senate Ethics or Rules committees, but she could not go straight to the courts. The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act requires that employees first go through a lengthy compliance procedure, which Bredehoft complained is unfair because of its confidentiality requirement.

In fact, the requirement was designed to protect both the accused and the accuser. The administrative inquiry to be conducted by the Office of Compliance could take a year or more.


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