Alcee Hastings's sexual harassment woes

A conservative group called Judicial Watch hit Congressman Alcee Hastings last month with a sexual harassment lawsuit. The merits of the case aren't yet clear, but it's certain things are going to get messy. The question: Just how busted is the congressman?

The suit combines two of the South Florida Democrat's chief alleged weaknesses — taxpayer-funded globetrotting and women underlings he has hired on his staff.

His accuser, the plaintiff in the case, isn't someone to take lightly. Her name is Winsome Packer, a Republican whom Hastings appointed his policy advisor on the Helsinki Commission when he chaired it.

Packer is also the author of a novel titled A Personal Agenda, which is about the "alienation, hostility, and impropriety she experienced as a newcomer to Capitol Hill." She also served as George W. Bush's appointee to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and was a policy advisor to the House Committee on Homeland Security. And she's proficient in Portuguese.

The 74-year-old Hastings, who is unmarried and has two grown daughters, claims Packer's case is frivolous. "I have never sexually harassed anyone," he writes. "In fact, I am insulted that these ludicrous allegations are being made against me. When all the facts are known in this case, the prevailing sentiment will be, How bizarre! I will win this lawsuit. That is a certainty. In a race with a lie, the truth always wins. And when the truth comes to light and the personal agendas of my accusers are exposed, I will be vindicated."

Nice touch incorporating the book title. But the attractive Jamaican-born Packer is someone who obviously had a lot of personal contact with Hastings after he brought her aboard for the $165,000-a-year post.

Soon after her hiring, Packer traveled the world with Hastings on congressional business to places such as Vienna, Copenhagen, Kiev, and Lisbon. And she claims in the suit that Hastings made unwanted sexual advances toward her at just about every stop.

The lawsuit has been publicized around the world, from the Wall Street Journal to London's Daily Mail. But a deep look into the case reveals much more. Packer alleges that as Hastings was trying to persuade her to succumb to his charms, he told her of romantic relationships with two other staffers in his D.C. office — one of whom was a frequent companion of the Democrat (who lives in Miramar and whose district stretches north and west) on some of his controversial international trips.

"At dinner the same evening, in a conversation initiated by Mr. Hastings, he commented to Ms. Packer that the only reason he was dating Patricia Williams, the deputy district director, was because she had been his counsel in his bribery and impeachment trials that resulted in his impeachment and removal from the federal bench. He also confided to her that he had been dating another staff member, Vanessa Griddine, but that she was 'not worthy.'"

The inclusion of Williams is no surprise. Hastings for years has been romantically linked to her — and considering the whopping $162,000 salary she is paid as a staffer in Hastings's congressional office, it's an ethically dubious relationship at best. Not so much because the two have had a romantic relationship, but because Hastings still personally owes Williams hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal services.

Williams, a former lawyer, dated Hastings at the time he was under investigation by the FBI in 1991. She was disbarred after representing him during his bribery and impeachment trials. Obviously her high-paying job on the taxpayers' dime could be a way to pay her back for helping him in his time of need. She's officially Hastings's "deputy staff director" at his D.C. office, though she is known to spend a lot of time in Broward County.

It's not the kind of thing a congressman would want examined in a high-profile lawsuit. If the suit progresses, Hastings and his staffers could be forced under oath to answer questions about relationships.

Griddine has also been the subject of rumors involving Hastings in the right-wing press for years, in part fueled by the fact that he put her on the congressional payroll at a salary of more than $71,000 a year — more than he paid his legislative director and his chief of staff in the D.C. office.

And Griddine was also one of Hastings's favorite travel companions during the past decade. Published reports indicate she has accompanied Hastings on congressional trips to Austria, Italy, Russia, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Lebanon.

Hastings's high-rolling travel was exposed in a Wall Street Journal report published in March 2010 that labeled him one of the biggest spenders on Capitol Hill. A subsequent report by Congressional Quarterly showed that Hastings had racked up six figures in congressional travel expenses in the decade ending in 2005, making him the second-highest travel spender in the House during that time. The travel included 57 trips to 116 countries, and the expenses included gifts and other items that appeared to be improper expenditures. One Hastings trip detailed in the Congressional Quarterly report was a three-day jaunt to Belgium with Griddine in 2004 that cost taxpayers $14,193.

Much of the money spent during those trips was doled out in controversial per diems that go without documentation. In the Wall Street Journal article, Hastings claimed he was too rushed on his trips to keep up with receipts. "You are all concerned about nickels and dimes, and I'm not," he told the newspaper. "You know, in a taxicab in Kazakhstan, I don't have time to get a receipt — I don't speak Kazakh."

He also claimed that on the trips, he would use the taxpayer-financed per diem money to "buy gifts, meals, or drinks for the military pilots, security officials, and interpreters who travel with him."

"I'm a generous spirit and a courteous spirit," Mr. Hastings said at the time. "I stand accused."

In January, a House ethics panel dropped its investigation of the travel habits of Hastings, citing a lack of evidence. Now he once again finds himself accused, this time in court. Time will tell if Hastings — the ultimate political and professional survivor — will beat this one too.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman