Winsome Packer had a plum overseas assignment, an apartment in Vienna and a six-figure salary as an adviser to a Washington congressman when it all came crashing down.

Her boss, Florida Representative Alcee Hastings, (D), suggested that he should stay with her when he was visiting Austria, she claimed. He made comments she considered sexually suggestive and hugged her in a way she felt inappropriate.

Hastings denies that he harassed her, and one of his laywers claims Packer created "a fiction" with her accusations, which were made under a process Congress set up to handle sexual harassment claims against its members.

The contentious case dragged on for four years, and in the end Packer was awarded US$220,000 ($302,000) in one of the largest secret settlements paid out in recent years by the congressional Office of Compliance.

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But both sides say the process is unfair and abusive to the accuser and the accused. Packer said she has not recovered from the harrowing legal fight, and Hastings said his reputation was damaged. As lawmakers prepare to unveil bipartisan legislation as early as this week that would alter the current system for handling such claims, both Packer and Hastings said their dispute reveals a broken law that must be fixed.

Packer lost her job and is unemployed. She had to agree not to discuss her case, but she recently broke the pledge, calling it "a license to abuse and demoralise the victim completely".

Hastings believes Packer should never have received a settlement, which he said he played no role in negotiating.

"The way it is being framed is I participated in something secret," Hastings said in a recent interview. "I wasn't in the mediation session. I wasn't part of the settlement negotiations. I secreted nothing. We need greater transparency. I personally have no objections to releasing any and all information."

House Employment Counsel lawyers, who represented Hastings, declined to discuss the case because of the confidentiality agreement. However, a June 12, 2014, memo from that office to commission staff shows the lead lawyer on the case believed the system allowed for "manufactured legal extortion."


The lawyer said Packer took a "kernel of truth" about Hastings's sexually tinged comments but "grossly distorted events and circumstances in order to create a fiction that she experienced sexual harassment and intimidation," the document says. For example, the lawyer alluded to an incident in which Hastings told Packer he had trouble sleeping after sex, which Hastings said he shared only because he believed they were friends, not because he was pursuing her sexually.

In the end, Packer's doggedness played an outsized role in her securing a larger-than-average settlement, documents and interviews show. She refused to settle early, pressed forward with a lawsuit and represented herself when she could no longer afford a lawyer.

Settling sexual harassment cases on Capitol Hill is risky for members, whose careers can derail if allegations become public, and for accusers confronting a system that victims' advocates argue protects the powerful.

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The process may run up tens of thousands of dollars in private legal bills for both parties and consume months or years of staff time.

And there is no accountability for the use of taxpayer funds to settle cases. Strict confidentiality required under the law keeps secret the names of members and terms of settlement agreements.

Congress is now considering amending the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, the law governing how harassment cases are handled on Capitol Hill, after seven members have either resigned or said they would not seek reelection in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Lawyers who handle these cases say most staffers take no action because they fear it could hurt their careers.


The claim Packer brought against Hastings in 2010 illustrates flaws in the process and the bitter aftereffects it can have on both the accuser and the accused.

Packer said running up US$20,000 in legal bills caused her to lose her Virginia home to foreclosure as the case wound its way through the congressional Office of Compliance, two House ethics inquiries and a federal court.

Hastings said he was also damaged by what he called a "ludicrous" claim. His defence cost him US$40,000, he said.

The Democratic member hired Packer, a Republican with foreign policy expertise, in May 2007 when he chaired the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Located on Capitol Hill, the commission is a federal agencyrun by Congress and promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation in Europe, Eurasia and North America.

For nine months, Packer was Hastings' policy adviser on the commission staff. Then he promoted her to a foreign post in Vienna. Her salary more than doubled, to US$165,000 from US$80,000, court records show.

Packer claimed that the sexual harassment began in January 2008, shortly after her promotion. She said Hastings told her many times that he wanted to stay with her in Vienna. Hastings denied the conversations.

"I ignored him at first, hoping he would see I wasn't interested," Packer said in an interview.


Packer said that within months Hastings' advances became more overt. During a July 2008 business trip to Kazakhstan, Packer said, she was instructed to report to a hotel hospitality suite shortly after she landed at 4am Hastings was waiting for her, she said.

"I went up there, and the first thing he did was grab me and press himself up against me. Then he pressed his face against mine," Packer said in an interview. "I reminded him that this was inappropriate. It was the first time I told him explicitly."

Her lawsuit claims that the harassment continued over two years and that she reported numerous incidents to Hastings' chief of staff, Fred Turner, asking him to intervene.

In her lawsuit, she said Turner spoke to Hastings but the harassment continued. When she continued to complain, she said Turner retaliated against her by marginalising her at work, including limiting travel and reassigning much of her work. Turner did not respond to requests for comment, but he previously denied to congressional investigators that he retaliated or that he received early reports of Packer's complaints, according to a House Ethics Committee report.

In February 2010, Packer said she sought help from the office of Congressman Christopher Smith, (R), who served with Hastings on the commission, and was referred to the Office of Compliance. The office was established by the Congressional Accountability Act as a place for legislative branch employees to file workplace claims, including sexual harassment allegations.

I'm still answering questions. Here is the conundrum: I have to live with these accusations whether they are true or not

Packer filed a formal complaint against Hastings on August 9, 2010.

Ultimately, the Senate Employment Counsel handled the out-of-court settlement with the commission in May 2014. The congressional Office of Compliance signed off on the payment.

Six months later, the House Ethics Committee closed its investigation, clearing Hastings of wrongdoing but admonishing him for "certain conduct that is less than professional". It cited comments at a bar and about insomnia and sex.

Now, nearly 10 years since the alleged harassment began, both Packer and Hastings said the process was life-altering.

"I'm still answering questions," Hastings said. "Here is the conundrum: I have to live with these accusations whether they are true or not."

Packer is still seeking work, living with her sister in her rented duplex, about 65km from Hastings' Florida district offices.

"I lost my career," Packer said. "I lost one-third of my pension. Lost my security clearance. And I lost many of my friends."