The usually snoozy Architect of the Capitol’s office has already seen its share of scandals over the past year. Now add a discrimination complaint from a former senior employee to the list.
Christine Leonard, the ex-director of legislative and public affairs for the agency that oversees operation and maintenance of the Capitol complex, filed a claim Wednesday afternoon against her former employer, accusing the agency of improperly firing her after she reported sexism and discrimination. The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights will review her complaint, a required step before a civil lawsuit can be filed in federal district court.
Leonard cited “corrupt and unjust” behavior at the highest ranks of the AOC and improper termination from her position when she attempted to report wrongdoing. As part of the claim, Leonard is demanding back pay, benefits and damages of $300,000 and that the agency reinstates her to her old job.
She said in a statement to POLITICO that she had raised concerns of sex discrimination to the AOC’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Dispute Resolution when she worked for the agency, but nothing happened.
“I hope this complaint will shine a light on the agency, bring about meaningful change, and result in a positive work environment where men and women are treated and paid equally,” she said.
The former Architect of the Capitol, J. Brett Blanton, had a host of well-known problems that culminated in his firing last February, after a watchdog report found he had engaged in the widespread misuse of official resources. His acting successor, Chere Rexroat, then purged much of senior leadership.
Leonard’s complaint involves both of those leaders, alleging that the agency had a “sexist environment” during Blanton’s time in office that Rexroat only escalated after he left. Leonard wrote that male colleagues of hers were paid more, plus given more flexibility, administrative support and work opportunities than women in the office.
She also accused Rexroat — who became Leonard’s direct boss — of chastising her for asking to telework while taking care of her dying mother-in-law, but allowing a male colleague of similar seniority to work from California for months while he was caring for ailing in-laws.
“We’re looking at some disparate treatment on the basis of gender, you know, old-fashioned sexism,” Leonard’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, told POLITICO in an interview.
The Architect of the Capitol’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Like most legislative staffers, Leonard is not covered by the robust whistleblower protections that apply to other federal employees. Congressional staff, Capitol Police and others are not protected from retaliation for attempts to report wrongdoing within Congress.
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights has urged lawmakers to extend whistleblower protections to legislative branch employees for years, but lawmakers have resisted giving employees traditional protections.
The complaint also includes some new eyebrow-raising allegations. Leonard contends that she saw Blanton drinking alcohol in his office with his wife and a friend before last year’s State of the Union, while he was supposed to be working on one of the biggest security nights of the year. The AOC is on the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the Capitol Police. Blanton did not respond to a request for comment.
Another part of the complaint involves the office of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy; Leonard said his staffers wanted gavels to be crafted from trees on the Capitol grounds for McCarthy to give away as gifts. That would’ve used agency staff time and funding, which she said reported as a violation of the Antideficiency Act to the agency’s general counsel. But Rexroat approved making the gavels regardless, Leonard said.
A former McCarthy aide familiar with the office’s dealings with the AOC said the AOC made such gavels as standard practice for congressional offices and McCarthy’s office did not request any as gifts. Employees did request on one occasion that, if possible and in line with what’s available for sale in the AOC-run Capitol Visitor Center gift shop, gavels be made from fallen tree limbs on the Capitol campus, the person acknowledged.
“Leonard’s claims are false, and it’s noteworthy that Leonard has not provided Politico any evidence about her claim of an Antideficiency Act violation, meanwhile no discussions of gifts ever took place and the AOC has full authority, resources, and dedicated staff to craft items such as gavels, frames, built-ins, plaques, and signs,” the former aide said in a statement. “The AOC has a history of using wood from fallen branches to build items.”
Leonard also wrote that members of Congress and their staffers tried to get private entities to pay for Christmas tree deliveries to dozens of congressional offices, though she does not name which members or staffers. She said she also reported those incidents as violations of the Antideficiency Act and ethics rules, but did not clarify if the lawmaker and staff requests were met.
Wilkenfeld described the pattern of permissive behavior from Leonard’s superiors in the face of pressure from lawmakers as “an erosion” of “the backstop role the agency is supposed to play against these kinds of excesses by members of Congress.”
Other employees fired in April 2023 have blamed Leonard’s allegations of sexism for their terminations in separate lawsuits filed later that year. Shortly after President Joe Biden fired Blanton, Rexroat removed former chief of staff Peter Bahm, former general counsel Jason Baltimore, former CFO Jonathan Kraft and former chief administrative officer William O’Donnell in a major shakeup.