Panel alleges improper payments by GOP congressman to aide

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A congressional review panel says there is "substantial reason to believe" that North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows may have broken House rules when he continued to pay an employee accused of sexual harassment for months after he was fired.

The probe into the Republican congressman involves allegations that Meadows approved severance payments to his former chief of staff — whom several female members of Meadows' staff said made them feel uncomfortable — in violation of the rules.

The staffer, Kenny West, was fired in the spring of 2015 but was paid his full salary through mid-August.

The controversy first surfaced in the fall of 2014. After complaints by several women in the office about his behavior, West was not allowed to be present in either Meadows' Washington or home-district offices dating to October, 2014. He appeared to do a limited amount of work while keeping his full-time salary.

The House Ethics Committee's top lawmakers said in a joint statement Wednesday that the panel is reviewing a referral from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, an outside panel that reviews ethics complaints against House members.

A lawyer for Meadows, Elliot Berke, sent the official ethics panel a letter this May that noted that Meadows himself had self-reported the situation to the committee last November after learning that the independent panel was investigating. The letter also said that Meadows paid West's salary to guarantee a smooth transfer of his responsibilities.

But the letter from Meadows' lawyer also acknowledged that Meadows may have misinterpreted House rules but says "even if his ultimate interpretation of severance may be proven in error, it was an interpretation taken in good faith."

In an earlier letter sent to the ethics panel late last year, Meadows wrote, "I genuinely would like to know if I have done anything wrong, and whether any remedy is necessary."

In depositions included with the Office of Congressional Ethics report, several unnamed Meadows aides provided tawdry details of the alleged harassment by West.

One aide says she was told when hired not to wear her hair in a ponytail when West was in town, "because he really likes to play with girls' hair when it's in a ponytail." The same person told investigators that West continually checked her out and tried to look down her shirt, and "there's just this creep factor about him." Another aide said West touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable and made inappropriate remarks about her outfits.

In October of 2014 female staffers presented the concerns to Meadows who was "very surprised," according to one deposition.

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