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Politics & Government

Watt and a woman he is accused of sexually harassing will testify publicly before House


The woman who says she was sexually harassed by Mel Watt, the director of a federal housing agency and former U.S. representative from North Carolina, will testify about her experience before a House committee on Thursday, according to the committee’s schedule.

The House Financial Services Committee, which includes three North Carolina Republicans, will hear from Simone Grimes, an employee at the Federal Housing Finance Agency. She filed a sexual harassment complaint against Watt in May.

Watt, who turned 73 last month, represented Charlotte in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2013 and was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency in 2013. He took the position in January 2014. His five-year term expires in January 2019.

Watt remains on the job despite Grimes’ claims, which have been investigated by an official at the United States Postal Service. It is not uncommon for other government agencies to investigate claims in another agency, particularly smaller ones. That investigation has been completed, but its findings have not been made public.

Watt refused to cooperate with the investigators, Grimes’ attorney alleged in a letter to Congress. She urged the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, which have oversight of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to make Watt answer the claims.

Watt also is scheduled to testify at the hearing after Grimes. The Federal Housing Finance Agency has been the conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “government sponsored enterprises” that purchase home mortgages from lenders to allow them to make more home loans since the 2008 housing crash.

In her letter to the groups, attorney Diane Seltzer Torre called on the committees to “require Director Watt to either testify or provide a sworn statement in response to the multiple allegations of misconduct against him.” She also called for the committee to get a copy of the investigative report and, if necessary, assign further investigation to a neutral party.

“Congress needs to get involved. There’s no one else that can make him do anything. He’s the boss there,” Seltzer Torre said. “We want them to know that he was investigated and wouldn’t participate, wouldn’t speak with the investigator. We’re concerned about the relationship that exists between him and the office of the IG. There needs to be some oversight and some independence.”

North Carolina Republican Reps. Patrick McHenry of Denver, Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and Ted Budd of Davie County are members of the committee.

Watt has declined to comment on the allegations or investigation outside of a statement released in May.

“The selective leaks related to this matter are obviously intended to embarrass or to lead to an unfounded or political conclusion. However, I am confident that the investigation currently in progress will confirm that I have not done anything contrary to law. I will have no further comment while the investigation is in progress,” he said in the May statement released by the FHFA.

Grimes also filed a pay discrimination case against the agency in August. She is seeking $1 million in addition to back pay, lost benefits and other damages. While that case is separate from the complaint against Watt, it alleges that rejections of Watt’s sexual advances were “directly related” to her not getting pay equity.

Grimes’ name became public in August when the agency’s Office of Inspector General filed a summons for subpoenaed information in U.S. District Court in Virginia. Seltzer Torre said the government did not need to file the summons or disclose her client’s name. She said she and Grimes had asked for additional time to comply with the subpoena for information, such as emails and audio files.

Seltzer Torre said turning over the information — including audio tapes of Watt talking to Grimes that she secretly recorded — before getting Watt’s testimony was unusual. “Which said to me they wanted to get the recordings so he could know all of what was out there and minimize the opportunity to commit perjury,” she said.

In a 7 1/2-minute excerpt of the tapes provided to McClatchy by her attorney, Grimes is heard asking a man about a promotion and inquiring about one of two jobs. Seltzer Torre identified the man as Watt. Watt and the agency would not comment for this story. However, Watt has been identified as the speaker on the tape by multiple news organizations, including NPR and NBC.

“I just need to make sure I feel clear and confident that this is just going to be based on merit and fitness for the position — and nothing else,” Grimes asks him on the tape.

He responds, in part: “I think you’re gorgeous, but I don’t make agency decisions based on who’s gorgeous or who’s not.”

As the conversation continues, he said he is concerned about other people’s perceptions of Grimes’ relationship with him and whether that is a factor in her getting a promotion or not.

“Your ability to function in a position, other people’s view of it is important. So the truth of the matter is I don’t pay much attention to other people’s perceptions unless I’m guilty,” he said. “I’m guilty of having an attraction to you, that’s true. So it makes me more conscious not to leave some impression that either this is happening or people perceive that it’s happening because of that.” (Watt is married.)

He then references a previous conversation.

“I can certainly draw the line knowing what I’ve talked to you about up to this point has nothing to do with either your beauty or my feelings. But that doesn’t eliminate the feelings or the beauty. I’m comfortable with drawing the line with where you told me I need to draw it. I’ve drawn that line, much to my disappointment,” he said.

The conversation was held in a private home, which he said was the best place to have the meeting to keep others from talking. On the tape, he acknowledges that Grimes may have thought he wanted her to come there for a different reason.

“This is the safest place to do this. It would be the safest place, if it were going beyond this conversation. I think you were concerned I was luring you here for other reasons. I wasn’t concerned about that,” he said.

“Then I feel much better,” Grimes said.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC

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