Last month, news emerged that Melvin Watt—the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a former Democratic member of Congress from North Carolina—was under investigation for sexual harassment, after an employee of the agency filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In her complaint, the employee alleged that Watt repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances towards her during discussions in which she tried to raise concerns about her career advancement and pay equity issues.
That employee, Simone Grimes, is now speaking publicly for the first time since her allegations became public. Grimes also, as NPR reports, has audio recordings of her interactions with Watt. While Grimes had previously wished to remain anonymous, her attorney Diane Seltzer Torre told Jezebel that after the FHFA revealed her identity earlier this month in a court filing to obtain the full contents of her audio tapes, she decided to come forward. On Monday, she filed a separate lawsuit against the FHFA for allegedly violating the Equal Pay Act.
According to NPR, in 2015, Grimes had been promised a pay increase after a job promotion. That never materialized, even after several inquiries, and she was told that Watt would have to approve the raise. In her lawsuit, she states that she was paid about $70,000 less than her predecessor, a man.
“That’s kind of when Director Watt began his advances,” Grimes told NPR. “So he approached me at a few functions that were at work to say he believed there was an attraction between us that needed to be explored.”
Grimes secretly recorded some of those meetings, which she provided and detailed to NPR:
In November 2016, she says, Watt asked her to meet.
“He wanted that conversation to occur not on the premises,” she says.
Grimes reluctantly agreed to meet at his house, where she recorded him. “I’m guilty of having an attraction to you, that is true,” Watt says on the tape. “So it makes me more conscious not to leave some impression.”
She says Watt mentioned possibilities of other senior roles that came with higher pay, including that of chief operating officer. “My comment to him is, ‘Those sound fine, I believe I’m qualified, but I want to make sure there’s no strings attached, you’re not expecting anything in return,’” she says.
Watt responded on the tape: “I can certainly draw the line, knowing that this end, what I’ve talked to you about up to this point, has nothing to do with either your beauty or my feelings.”
At the end of July, Politico also reported on Grimes’s sexual harassment claims against Watt and included details from documents they had obtained:
In a transcript dated April 2016, a person identified as Watt arranged for the two to meet outside the office “because of perceptions.” The conversation took place on the drive from the FHFA to the Rosa Mexicana restaurant.
“Well, you probably want to know what I wanted to talk to you about,” Watt said. “I mentioned to you there is an attraction here that I think needs to be explored. In my experience there are four types of attraction: emotional, spiritual, sexual or of friendship. So, the exercise here is to find out which one exists here.”
The woman then tried to shut down the conversation.
“If I gave you that impression in any way, that was not intentional,” she said. “My impression was that you wanted to discuss the work-related items I’ve been talking to [a superior] about. But, if that’s not the case, then I think I should take you back to FHFA. Because I don’t want any confusion here.”
Watt responded to the sexual harassment allegations last month, in a statement he provided to the Associated Press. “The selective leaks related to this matter are obviously intended to embarrass or to lead to an unfounded or political conclusion,” he said. (The same statement was sent to Jezebel following a request for comment.)
Grimes, who continues to work for the agency, told Bloomberg News that she believes FHFA officials have retaliated against her. “I did not choose to come forward publicly,” Grimes said. “The FHFA office of the inspector general, under the leadership of Laura Wertheimer, disclosed my identity in a series of retaliatory moves designed to intimidate and bully me.”
She echoed those sentiments with NPR, adding, “I will continue with this, because I work there, and I know I’m not the only person.”