A young staff assistant is on the phone when her boss, a Republican senator, comes up behind her and kisses her on the neck.
“I was startled by that, finished the phone conversation, hung up the phone and turned and said to him, ‘Don’t you ever do that again,’ ” said Julie Williamson in a 1992 interview with Portland, Ore., television station KATU.
But it got worse from there.
According to testimony she later provided to the Senate Ethics Committee, he then tried to grab her as she tried unsuccessfully to move around the office to get away:
“Finally, he grabbed her; when she tried to kick him in the shins, he stood on her feet. He grabbed her ponytail with his left hand, pulled her head back forcefully, and gave her a big wet kiss, with his tongue in her mouth. She did not smell or taste any alcohol. With his right hand, he reached up under her skirt and grabbed the edge of her panty girdle and tried to pull it down. She struggled, got away from him, and ran into the front office. He stalked out past her, paused at the threshold to the hallway, and told her, ‘If not today, someday,’ and left.”
Williamson was one of nearly 20 women to come forward in the early 1990s to allege sexual harassment by then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
And although it all happened decades ago, the testimonials are strikingly similar to what women are speaking up out about now — bad behavior by powerful men in politics, media and entertainment.
With a broad cultural reckoning underway and allegations of sexual harassment and worse swirling around Congress, the ethics committees in the House and Senate are suddenly getting a lot more attention, as is the case of Sen. Packwood. His is the most recent case of the Senate Ethics Committee voting to expel someone from the Senate.
Packwood did not respond to NPR for comment on this story.
The Ethics Committee is divided equally by party and operates confidentially. It’s the same committee that would likely be called into service if Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore wins a special election in Alabama on Dec. 12. He’s facing accusations — which he denies — of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct with teenage girls when Moore was in his 30s. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has asked for an Ethics Committee investigation of accusations from two women who say he groped them.
This could bring the most public attention the committee has gotten since the Packwood case in the early 1990s.
News stories from around the time the Packwood allegations were first reported describe women empowered by telling their stories, gaining strength in numbers, being heard just as clearly as a U.S. senator.
But, unlike now, when prominent men like Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein have faced swift justice in the form of lost jobs and industry exile, in the case of Packwood, the Senate Ethics Committee process took years. The inquiry began in December 1992 and didn’t end until September 1995. At the time there were serious questions about the Senate’s ability to police itself.
The process was long and drawn out, in part because though Packwood initially requested the investigation, he then resisted, even modifying records. At one point, the Ethics Committee had to get full Senate approval to seek a court order to enforce a subpoena for a voluminous diary kept by Packwood during his time in the Senate.
“This isn’t an attempt to pry,” explained then-Sen. and Ethics Committee member Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in a speech on the Senate floor arguing for expanded access to the diary. “We’re not the Senate select committee on voyeurism.”
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is now the Senate majority leader, delivered a speech on the Senate floor in 1993, arguing for enforcement of the subpoena.
“Are we up to the job?,” McConnell asked rhetorically, though it was an open question at the time. “Can we through the instrument of the Ethics Committee impartially and thoroughly investigate incidences of misconduct by our colleagues and will we give the committee the authority it needs to get the job done right?”
McConnell was then one of the Republican members of the Ethics Committee and was its chair by the time the committee voted to expel Packwood.
California Democrat Barbara Boxer entered the Senate in 1993, in a wave of female lawmakers elected after the Anita Hill scandal.
“I’m waiting for the Ethics Committee to kick this guy out and a year goes by, two years go by, still nothing happens,” says Boxer, describing her surprise at the time.
So in 1995, Boxer began agitating for public hearings on the matter. Republicans in the Senate blocked her amendment, but the Senate floor fight drew significant attention back to Packwood’s case.
The diary Packwood kept of his time in the Senate was ultimately the key to his undoing. The thousands of pages included entries describing shady arrangements with lobbyists and salacious entries like this, which Boxer excerpted in her recent book The Art of Tough:
“I have one question — if she didn’t want me to feather her nest, why did she come into the Xerox room? Sure, she used that old excuse that she had to make copies of the Brady Bill, but if you believe that, I have a room full of radical feminists you can boff. She knew I was copying stuff in there. I had my jacket off and my sleeves rolled up, revealing the well-defined musculature of my sinewy arms which are always bulging with desire. I know what she wanted. This didn’t require a lot of thought.”
Nearly three years after the allegations first went public, the Senate Ethics Committee voted unanimously to expel Packwood from the Senate.
“Senator Packwood engaged in a pattern of abuse of his position of power and authority as a United States Senator by repeatedly committing sexual misconduct, making at least 18 separate unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances between 1969 and 1990,” the Ethics Committee report detailed. “In most of these instances, the victims were members of Senator Packwood’s staff or individuals whose livelihoods were dependent upon or connected to the power and authority held by Senator Packwood. These improper acts bring discredit and dishonor upon the Senate and constitute conduct unbecoming a United States Senator.”
The next day, before the full Senate could vote on whether to expel Packwood, he resigned.
“It is my duty to resign. It is the honorable thing to do for this country, for this Senate,” Packwood said near the end of a lengthy speech describing his years in the Senate.
Boxer, who retired in early 2017, says she thought Packwood’s case represented a sea change. It didn’t.
“It’s stunning to me that we would be in this situation today, after Anita Hill, after Bob Packwood, after Bill Clinton,” said Boxer in a recent interview with NPR. “It just is stunning to me that the people who are abusing their power don’t understand that it’s wrong, it’s immoral and it’s dangerous.”
But this time — this cultural moment — feels different, Boxer said, adding that she has faith in the Ethics Committee members and staff.