Who harassed whom?

The former chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus claims he sexually harassed her, then fired her, but the senator tells an entirely different story -- that she was relentlessly abusing his staff.

Published September 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Just when you thought that the year of "that woman" could finally be relegated to the history books, the corridors of the Capitol are once again buzzing with the torrid details of yet another embarrassing sex scandal.

OK, so maybe they're not quite so torrid this time. There's no thong underwear or wet kiss elevator assaults; no pubic hair on Coke cans or stained navy blue dresses. Heck, there aren't even any allegations of inappropriate touching!

So even that dirtiest of dirty old men, Ken Starr, would be hard-pressed to come up with a steamy narrative for this one; nevertheless, the story isn't without its intriguing details. What it may lack in sex, the latest story makes up for with mystery. The Capitol Police have a cameo role, there are some allegedly revealing e-mails, as well as a rendezvous at the Four Seasons hotel and some weird stalking allegations.

And it wouldn't be a Washington sex scandal without an elaborate smear campaign to discredit the accuser, bizarre legal contortions on all sides and an ample helping of partisan politics. This one delivers on all those counts, too.

Last week, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke the news that mild-mannered Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, had fired his chief of staff, Christine Niedermeier, for what he described as management differences and she described as direct retaliation for refusing months of sexual advances.

At its core, it seemed like a classic "he said, she said" kind of tale.

Baucus, 57, married to his second wife, says he fired Niedermeier because her tyrannical behavior toward staff was causing an office-wide revolt. Niedermeier, 47 and single, says she was terminated because she rejected his advances and because he feared she was going to file a sexual harassment suit.

Baucus flatly denies the charges. "Let me state unequivocally that I have never, under any circumstances, sexually harassed Christine Niedermeier," Baucus said in a written statement. (He later repeated his denial to the Associated Press.)

In his statement, the senator added that 36 of his staff members had signed a grievance petition against Niedermeier. He said his aides started circulating the petition because they found her abusive management style intolerable. He further claimed that a number of his long-term aides went so far as to tender their resignations due to her abusive ways.

One of those former staffers, Jim Messina, now a chief of staff in another congressional office, supported Baucus' version. Messina told Salon News that he left the Baucus operation in May because of Niedermeier's abuse.

"Working for Neidermeier was a nightmare," Messina said. It was just constant abuse, constant yelling ... she wouldn't let you [do your job] ... It was tough because we all love Max so much because he's such a good guy."

Niedermeier came forward with her version three weeks after her firing when Roll Call called to ask her what had happened. She says the 36-signature petition was thrown together as a cover story only after she had confronted Buacus about his behavior. Furthermore, she says she has been prevented from reclaiming the evidence that could prove her case.

Niedermeier claims the abuse started a month after she took the chief of staff position with Baucus in May 1998. She put up with it, she says, because she liked her job and was afraid she'd be fired if she told him to knock it off.

Nevertheless, on May 3, 1999, she accompanied Baucus to an official White House dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. By late July, however, Niedermeier says, she had tired of Buacus' ongoing harassment.

Niedermeier is quick to acknowledge, though, that none of Baucus' alleged come-ons were Clintonesque in nature. He never, for instance, dropped trou and "asked her to kiss it." His style, she attests, was much more subtle, but annoying nonetheless.

According to Niedermeier, Baucus asked her questions about her personal life and her relationships with boyfriends, commented on what she was wearing, compared her to his wife and, at times, implored her to go away with him for the weekend. One time he suggested they go to Disney World together.

Former staffer Messina ridicules this characterization of Baucus' behavior. "I don't believe one of the allegations," Messina told Salon. "At no time in my four years with Sen. Baucus did I ever see or hear anything. In an operation as tight knit as that, rumors spread about everything.

"Neither myself nor any of the women who worked for the organization, nor my girlfriend, who worked for him for three years, ever saw, witnessed or heard anyone talk about that," Messina continued. "Max is like, in many ways, geeky -- in a good way. He just is kind of oblivious to all that. He wouldn't know how to do it.

"He complimented everyone," Messina continues. "He complimented me on my tie, that doesn't mean he wanted to sleep with me ... He'd ask how my relationship was ... just normal things. Things that if you or I were friends, you'd ask me about. That doesn't mean that he'd want to sleep with me.

"He's kind of the exemplary boss in that way -- one of those guys who really is truly human."

None of Niedermeier's allegations are exactly titillating stuff, let alone persuasive evidence of sexual harassment. It is only when you consider her version of the events leading up to her dismissal that the story gets more complicated.

On July 31, Niedermeier says, she met Baucus in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, where they talked for two hours about the growing tensions in the office.

Then, Niedermeier says, she decided to bring up as a major source of personal strain between the two of them the issue of sexual harassment. Niedermeier's attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, says that at first Baucus denied it, then he apologized.

That's where the e-mails come into the picture. Last week, Niedermeier provided several media outlets with a series of e-mails from Baucus that were written after the meeting at the Four Seasons - letters of goodwill that lauded her abilities and expressed the senator's deep confidence in her. (On Aug. 1, from Baucus to Niedermeier: "I feel good about Saturday session. Quite good ... you're my person; I'm going with you." Aug. 2 from Baucus to Niedermeier. "I do have full confidence in you. Full."

A week later, however, things apparently turned ugly. Neidermeier says she accompanied Baucus and one of his friends in a private plane on a short flight between two small towns in Montana for a golf tournament. According to Bredehoft, Baucus starting screaming at Niedermeier right when they got on the plane, demanding to know if she was planning on suing him for sexual harassment.

Niedermeier says she assured him she wasn't, but that he remained belligerent throughout the flight. She also says that the friend then got in on the act, warning her that things would get messy if she didn't work everything out amicably. Attorney Bredehoft says that the friend continued to "virtually stalk [Niedermeier]" after the plane ride and throughout the weekend, following her to different receptions, yelling at her in front of other people and calling her room repeatedly.

Niedermeier was still in Montana the following week, when on Aug. 15 an aide called to say it was time to discuss her "exit strategy." She quickly flew back to Washington; during a layover she talked on the phone with Baucus, who told her then and there that she was fired.

When Niedermeier got back to Washington that night, she went to the office to try to retrieve the personal e-mails she believed would back up her claims of harassment, but she was detained by two Capitol police officers who threatened her with arrest unless she agreed to leave the premises.

"I never would have imagined myself in a situation like this in my life," Niedermeier told Roll Call. "I never wanted to come forward, but I worked tirelessly for Max Baucus ... I loved my job. I often told [Baucus] I worked longer hours for him than when I ran for Congress, because I was at a stage in my life that I loved being on the Hill again. And if someone would do this to me and be so mean when I have worked so hard and effective for him is just very hard."

So what changed between the Four Seasons meeting, the e-mails and the plane trip? "What we suppose happened, he must have talked to somebody -- maybe his counsel, maybe his cronies, maybe some staff members," attorney Bredehoft says. "He became afraid that she was going to file some sexual harassment claims. That's clearly what was on his mind."

Baucus flatly rejects Niedermeier's version of events. His spokesman, Mike Siegel, says that in fact Baucus changed his mind about keeping his chief of staff after seeing her yell at an aide on Aug. 5. (Bredehoft counters that this incident has been "fabricated" by Baucus.)

And why then won't Baucus release the personal e-mails that Niedermeier claims will help bolster her case?

Spokesman Siegel says he can't comment on the e-mails or even acknowledge their existence because of the "implied litigation." He also won't confirm or deny the meeting at the Four Seasons or the plane ride. Baucus says he wants Niedermeier to present her case in court under oath, not in the press.

Now Niedermeier must decide what to do next: file an ethics committee complaint, file a lawsuit or let the whole thing drop. On Thursday, Niedermeier suddenly canceled a press conference at which she was supposed to announce whether she would file suit. No explanation was given.

Meanwhile, as the accusations and counterclaims took on an increasingly nasty, desperate tone this past week, the rest of Capitol Hill got involved in its inimitable way.

Aides and fellow Democrats jumped in to defend the beleaguered senator. Sharon Peterson, Baucus' state director, issued a written statement: "How Chris Niedermeier could make these reckless allegations is completely beyond me. I am personally outraged by these charges. I've known Max Baucus and his family for more than 20 years and I have found him to be a man of highest integrity ... It was the staff that came to Max, because Ms. Niedermeier was consistently demeaning and abusive to us."

Of course, dismissing Neidermeier's charges isn't as easy as trashing Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. Niedermeier is a well-educated, middle-aged professional, who has worked in Democratic Party politics for years and even ran for Congress twice from Connecticut in the 1980s.

This is where the alleged abusiveness toward staff becomes relevant. Effective chiefs of staff on the Hill are usually widely feared precisely because they play bad cop to the senator's good cop. In essence, that's their job.

It appears that Niedermeier was, in fact, brought in originally to ruffle the staff's feathers a bit. Baucus is facing a tough election bid, and despite his 20 years in the Senate and his position as ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee (behind retiring Sen. Pat Moynihan), Baucus really hasn't made much of a name for himself here.

Messina confirmed that Baucus hired Niedermeier because "he wanted someone who was tough and who could go in and make some changes."

On the Hill, the common view among Democrats seems to be that Baucus is shy and retiring and just incapable of this type of behavior. By contrast, the senator's friends aren't shy about attacking Niedermeier's credibility.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., stated: "When you've got virtually all of his staff indicating that she was unacceptable as a boss, then that has really damaged the credibility of her claim."

Months ago, Conrad volunteered, "His staff told my staff" that Niedermeier was facing an office revolt. "In fact, I had somebody who was interviewing in [Baucus'] office and other senior staffers there told him not to come there," Conrad said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was less combative, but equally reverential. "All I'll tell you is that Max Baucus is one of the most respected members of the Senate and I've known him for a long time and admire him greatly."

Should there be a Senate Ethics Committee investigation?

"I can't comment on that," Daschle replied. "That's not for me to decide."

This all sounds rather like selective amnesia on the Democrats' part. After all, weren't they the ones who, in 1991, rushed to the microphones to say we "must" believe Anita Hill, "because women do not lie about these things"?

"Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power. Do not make an exception in one case," California Sen. Barbara Boxer famously declared when Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of verbal sexual harassment.

"That is a very perilous path, because the message that it could send is: The more embarrassing the transgression, the more protected you will be," Boxer said. "And if it is sexual misconduct, you can count on it being behind closed doors. And that is wrong not only to the women of this country, but to their husbands, to their sons, to their fathers ... we are all in this together."

So what does Boxer have to say about the latest case? "I'm not going to talk about that," she told me when I approached her about the charges leveled against Baucus. "David [her press secretary] has a statement if you call the office."

Her prepared remarks were terse: "I have known and respected Max Baucus for years, he is regarded by his colleagues as an honest and honorable senator. That's why so many of us are surprised by the allegations against him. I hope this matter will be resolved fairly and expeditiously."

When I asked her spokesman if Boxer thought the Ethics Committee should investigate the matter, he begged off. "I'm not going to go beyond her statement."

Boxer has plenty of company. The National Organization for Women did not return repeated phone calls for this article. Washington's junior senator, Patty Murray, defended Baucus.

Murray is the one who memorably stood before the male-dominated U.S. Senate during the Bob Packwood investigation and declared indignantly, "You still don't get it!" She was one of five female senators led by Boxer who pressured the Ethics Committee to hold public hearings on sexual misconduct and other charges against Packwood. Yet, Murray is hardly ready to give Niedermeier the benefit of the doubt in this case. "She has not filed any formal charges," Murray told Roll Call. "She has done this in the press. All I know is Max is a man of integrity ... somebody I really respect."

"Every woman senator loves him," Messina explains, "because he always helps them get committee assignments and he's one of the only nine or 10 senators in the entire Senate who's had a 100 percent pro-choice voting record his entire life. He's just a great, pro-choice woman's activist and now he's going to be scarred with this. It's just horrible."

The whole case is probably a sad commentary on Capitol Hill, circa 1999. It would be nicer to think that after the sex trial of the century, Washington would taking a page from Newt Gingrich's pre-resignation comeback book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way."

Alas, Gingrich himself never learned his lesson and neither did his colleagues. The Baucus brouhaha, as well as Gingrich's own acrimonious divorce and affair with a 33-year-old staffer, clearly illuminate the sexual tension built into the Washington workplace that too often explodes onto the public stage.

Sadly, after three major sexual harassment cases in the nation's capital, we don't seem to have made much progress in our understanding of sexual harassment law. The line between office space and personal space remains as fuzzy as ever.

Politics only makes matters worse. Democrats and Republicans alike have shown time and again they are all too willing go to the mat to defend their man even if it means destroying a senator's or a woman's reputation in the process.

So far in the latest scandal, the Washington media has responded to the allegations with one long snore. Another sex scandal? Yawn. President Clinton has perhaps forever raised the outrage bar for sexual misdeeds, and from now on it's going to take a lot more than suggestive e-mails and a Disney World invite to cause much of a stir in this town.

By Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree writes for Roll Call.

MORE FROM Susan Crabtree

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Bill Clinton Kent Conrad Max Baucus D-mont.