Watt abused role in pursuing relationship with FHFA staffer: Watchdog

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WASHINGTON — Former Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt abused his power in an attempt to coerce an agency employee to engage in a romantic relationship, according to a watchdog report sent to President Trump in November.

It was first reported in July that Watt had made inappropriate advances toward a senior staffer — later revealed to be Simone Grimes, a special adviser at the agency — when she tried to discuss professional concerns related to a job promotion.

In its report, the agency’s inspector general disputed Watt’s claims that his comments — which Grimes had recorded and made public — were made in an innocent light, and said it was clear that Watt had crossed the line.

“We find it more likely than not that the FHFA Director sought to coerce or induce [Grimes] to engage in some sort of relationship with him that went beyond their existing ‘friendship’ and/or mentorship by inviting her to his apartment … and reporting that he was ‘guilty of having an attraction’ to her, by suggesting or implying he would use his official authority to assist her in obtaining an executive position at FHFA which he knew that she sought,” the report says.

In an interview conducted as part of the IG’s investigation, Watt said that when he was recorded saying he was “guilty of having an attraction” to Grimes, he meant that he had a “friendship attraction,” as he did with all of his mentees. Watt had told the House Financial Services Committee in September that he had previously served as a mentor to a number of FHFA employees, and sought to do the same with Grimes.

Watt also maintained in his interview that he was worried that Grimes was attempting to pursue a romantic relationship, and “he sought to assure himself that she was not.”

However, the report found that Watt’s explanations for his comments were “not credible.”

The investigation scrutinized the meetings Watt had with Grimes outside of the office, including at his house and at a D.C. restaurant.

“Given the director's stated concerns about the interests of the [Grimes], the director should have been especially scrupulous about conducting meetings with the [Grimes] in FHFA's offices,” the report said. “Instead, by his own admission, he treated [Grimes] differently from other female mentees. A reasonable conclusion is that he did so because he was seeking an inappropriate relationship with her.”

In response to a draft of the report — which was included as evidence in the final report — Watt called the IG’s conclusion that he had misused his position "sexist," because it assumed that a man could not mentor a woman without seeking an inappropriate relationship.

“It is also clear from the OIG's questions and from its Findings in the Draft Report that the OIG is applying a standard that is both sexist and inconsistent with current standards of gender equality,” Watt said. “It is also inconsistent with the standard of equality I have been fighting for throughout my professional career.”

The final report addressed this assertion, ultimately finding that there would have been no reason to invite an employee to Watt’s apartment to discuss attraction and the employee’s physical appearance during a conversation about career advancement.

President Trump and the U.S Office of Special Counsel received a copy of the report but did not take action before Watt’s term ended in early January.

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