WASHINGTON (AP) - A Pennsylvania congressman who used taxpayer money to settle a former aide’s sexual harassment charges abruptly resigned from Congress on Friday.
Four-term Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan had already decided to not seek re-election this fall. In a resignation letter submitted Friday, he said that within 30 days, he will repay the government $39,000 he used from his House office account as a severance payment to help settle the woman’s allegations against him.
“I did not want to leave with any question of violating the trust of taxpayers,” Meehan wrote.
Meehan, first elected in 2010, said his decision was in the best interest of constituents and would spare his staff and taxpayers the “rigors” and expense of an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called for an Ethics panel investigation of Meehan after The New York Times reported on the accusations against him in January. In his letter Friday, Meehan said he believed the investigation would have absolved him.
“I recognize that there are constituents who are disappointed in the manner in which I handled the situation that lead to my decision not to seek re-election and wish I had done better by them,” Meehan wrote.
The lawmaker’s early departure, which essentially ends the Ethics Committee’s look at the situation, prompted criticism from an attorney for the accuser.
“I’m disgusted that he has chosen to take the coward’s way out. Our client participated in the ethics probe expecting that justice would be served. That will not happen,” lawyer Debra Katz tweeted.
Meehan’s retirement has left his open seat from Philadelphia’s suburbs as a toss-up in this November’s elections, in which Democrats are hoping to capture House control. With Meehan’s early resignation, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf now has 10 days to set a special election at least 60 days out. His office said Friday that Wolf had yet to make a decision on a date.
The married Meehan, 62, described the woman as a “soul mate” and said he developed strong feelings for her, but always kept the relationship professional. He said he became upset when he learned the woman, who worked for him for seven years, was involved with someone else.
The woman’s lawyer said the allegations were a “serious sexual harassment claim.” The Times reported that she had lodged her complaint last summer with Congress’ Office of Compliance after Meehan became hostile toward her and she left the job.
Meehan said he followed the advice of House lawyers and Ethics Committee guidance in agreeing to the payment. However, the settlement had been kept secret, and Meehan’s office had long refused to answer repeated questions about how much taxpayer money Meehan paid out in it.
The scandal was a nail in Meehan’s political coffin. Since 2011, Meehan’s district had been badly contorted and criticized as being among the nation’s most gerrymandered. Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly won it in the 2016 presidential election, and a court-ordered redrawing of districts put Meehan’s home in a newly drawn district that heavily favors a Democrat.