WASHINGTON — In its first decision involving sexual harassment, the House ethics committee rebuked Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) Wednesday for improper conduct toward two women on his office staff and warned him that future misconduct could bring stronger discipline.
The committee, acting in the first of four cases involving alleged sexual misbehavior by congressmen, imposed the lightest possible punishment on Bates for violation of House standards. The panel directed Bates to send personal, written apologies to the two women who filed complaints against him. The committee also determined that Bates improperly used his congressional office for political activities.
Describing the harassment decision as "a fair conclusion" to a personally and politically unpleasant episode that he is eager to put behind him, Bates said: "Hopefully, this will be a learning experience that I can benefit from. I think I was insensitive in the past. Essentially, this has shown me that there's a need to be more sensitive so as not to offend others."
One of the women who accused Bates of sexual harassment, however, said she was "disgusted" by the outcome, contending that the committee was too lenient and that Bates should have resigned.
"I think it sends a very bad message to the women" on Capitol Hill, said Dorena Bertussi, a former Bates staff member who now works for a Louisiana congressman. "It's outrageous. I don't think the committee did a thorough job at all."
Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the panel, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, joined with Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.), its ranking GOP member, in writing the formal "letter of reproval" to Bates.
"Your improper conduct and concurrent violations of relevant standards deserve reproval," they wrote in what Myers termed a "very strong letter."
Although the 12-member bipartisan committee did not ask the House to discipline Bates, the letter warns him that any future similar violations might result in a recommendation that the House consider a stiffer penalty.
"Sexual harassment is defined as anything that's offensive to another person," Bates said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "By that standard, I'm guilty, regardless of whether I intended it that way or not. It certainly was never my intention to offend anyone by anything I said or did. But obviously (the women) were offended, and I accept the committee's conclusion."
Besides the sex harassment charges, the panel also found that Bates broke House rules by conducting impermissible campaign activity from his Washington office.
Dixon and Myers said that Bates' expressions of regret for his actions and his adoption of a written office policy forbidding sexual harassment were factors weighed by the committee in deciding to mete out the least possible punishment.
"The committee recognizes and has taken into consideration not only your acknowledgment of errors but also those steps you have taken to avoid any perception that you interact with staff in an untoward manner," the letter says.
In a sworn statement to the committee, Bates, 48, said he had hired a professional consulting firm to develop sensitivity training for him and others in his office concerning attitudes toward female employees.
The allegations that led to Wednesday's action initially surfaced during the closing weeks of Bates' 1988 reelection campaign against Republican lawyer Rob Butterfield Jr. In subsequent complaints filed with the ethics panel, Bertussi and Karen Dryden, another former Bates aide, alleged that Bates often embraced them or engaged in other objectionable behavior and said he expected staff members in his Washington congressional office to solicit campaign contributions.
Although the timing of the charges allowed Bates to dismiss them as "an orchestrated Republican smear," he also apologized from the outset for what he termed "kidding around and flirting" with female staff members in ways that he conceded were "sometimes inappropriate and unprofessional."
In the end, the 44th District's lopsided Democratic registration, a public backlash against Butterfield's negative tactics and voters' willingness to either disbelieve the charges or at least give Bates the benefit of the doubt enabled him to handily win a fourth term, 60% to 36%.
Asked whether he is concerned that the committee's ruling could harm his 1990 reelection chances, Bates replied: "I don't know--I don't think so. . . . But I don't want to second-guess the electorate. I'll make my case, and if it's good enough, I'll be reelected. I'm sure the Republicans will bring it up. We'll just have to see what impact, if any, it has."
Even within Republican circles, however, the consensus Wednesday was that the panel's rather mild reproach will not prove a major liability for Bates next year.