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Rep. Pat Meehan says he saw younger aide as ‘soul mate’ but denies harassment

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 24, 2018, 9:04 a.m.

Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, joined at right by Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., makes a point as the House Ways and Means Committee continues its debate over the Republican tax reform package, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, joined at right by Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., makes a point as the House Ways and Means Committee continues its debate over the Republican tax reform package, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
By Jonathan Tamari Philadelphia Inquirer

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep Pat Meehan said Tuesday he had developed a deep “affection” for a younger aide and told her that he saw her as a “soul mate” as they talked over ice cream one night last year, but in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer he said he never pursued a romantic relationship with the woman, who later accused him of sexual harassment.

Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican, also acknowledged that he initially reacted “selfishly” when he found out the aide, decades younger than him, had entered into a serious relationship with another man, and shared a heartfelt, handwritten letter he wrote to her in May wishing her well, but also thanking God “for putting you into my life and for all that we have seen and experienced and genuinely shared together.”

He also said he intends to continue running for re-election in Pennsylvania’s 7th District.

The comments were his first extensive response to a New York Times report Saturday that revealed that he had used thousands of taxpayer dollars to quietly settle a sexual harassment claim brought by the former aide, who was decades younger than the married, 62-year-old lawmaker.

In the 40-minute interview, one of several Meehan did with local news outlets Tuesday, the Congressman in many ways confirmed the outlines of the Times story. He said he had “developed an affection” for his aide “in a way in which I was struggling to make sure that I would never put that into our professional relationship.”

He said he felt bad about lashing out in his office when told of the woman’s relationship, attributing it to the tension-filled stretch around the House GOP votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, when he faced intense pressure from both sides of the debate.

“Sometimes I have the tendency to lash out to others on the staff . and you go hardest on the ones that you care the most about,” Meehan said in the interview.

He said he later expressed his feelings of affection to the aide, and sent a handwritten letter congratulating her on her new relationship, to try to clear the air “to make sure that I didn’t let that kind of thing which was growing just as a natural result of a relationship to step into a place that it ought not be.”

He said he felt “invited” to express his feelings to the younger aide, who had texted invite him to ice cream, according to texts shared by his camp.

“I started to talk to her about my reaction to (her new relationship) and you know, selfishly I was thinking about what this was going to mean to me,” Meehan said, “that she was leaving and that this was going to change the dynamic which was very special in my office and also somebody that I was emotionally close to by virtue of the time that we spent together in seven years.”

Meehan said he never wanted a romantic or sexual relationship and that he has remained loyal to his wife.

He said he told the aide “that I was a happily married man and I was not interested in a relationship, particularly not any sexual relationship, but we were soul mates. I think that the idea of soul mate is that sort of person that out go through remarkable experiences together.”

He later wrote her the note, and his office shared a text she sent the next day thanking him “for your very kind words and for your friendship.”

Asked if a subordinate might not feel comfortable expressing discomfort or rejecting the note, Meehan said “in hindsight” he “should have been looking at it from the perspective of a subordinate and a superior.”

But he quickly added that in his office “there is no hierarchy – we call it team Meehan.”

He also said he would repay the public funds used to settle the harassment case, if the House Ethics Committee finds he did in fact harass her. He termed the payment a “severance” rejecting the word “settlement.”

Meehan has come under intense pressure since the Times report and has denied the harassment claim but until Tuesday did not offer any details to dispute the report and had not made any public appearances or comments until Tuesday.

The former Meehan aide accused him of turning hostile toward her after she rejected his romantic advances, which, the Times story said, included the handwritten letter. That came after another senior Meehan aide had also expressed his romantic attraction to the woman, and had left the office after an agreement with the Congressman, the report said.

The woman filed a formal complaint, and after going through Congress’ investigative process, she and the representative settled last year. Meehan paid an undisclosed amount using the taxpayer-funded account for his congressional office, the Times reported.

He said Tuesday he was advised by House lawyers that the settlement was a possibility and that he could legally use taxpayer funds. He said the payment was kept secret to protect his and his aide’s privacy. He also said he settled the case to allow both of them to move on in their professional lives and prevent the dispute from becoming public.

Such controversial settlements have come under intense scrutiny, since they hide sexual harassment claims – and the taxpayer-funded settlements – from public view. The settlements are typically listed as normal employee compensation, with no indication of anything amiss.

Meehan, as a member of the House Ethics Committee, was helping review sexual harassment claims against several other members of Congress until the story broke Saturday. House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly removed him from the ethics panel and the committee on Monday launched an investigation into Meehan’s actions.

House leaders have called for reforming secret employee settlements, and Ryan has told Meehan he “should” repay the funds, a spokeswoman for the speaker has said.

Meehan already faced a difficult reelection bid in a moderate suburban district based in Delaware County, and some Republicans and Democrats believe he is already too damaged to win re-election in a year that has seen a sharp national backlash to sexual harassment.

Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, have called for Meehan to resign and protesters have gathered outside his Pennsylvania offices demanding he step down.

Republicans, however, have taken a more hands-off approach, citing Meehan’s denials and saying they hope more facts will come out. That seems unlikely, however.

The ethics committee typically moves slowly and most of what it does is private. Meehan and his accuser, meanwhile, have a confidentiality agreement and the former aide’s lawyer says she has no inclination to waive it.

The attorney has accused Meehan of citing that agreement to muddy the issue and save himself, saying he insisted on the nondisclosure pact to begin with, and that he knows the aide values her privacy and will not waive it.

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