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Discrimination complaints unfold in wake of Capitol agency scandal

Four lawsuits and a new administrative filing describe strife at the Architect of the Capitol

Chere Rexroat, acting architect of the Capitol, ousted five people from leadership roles in the months after her predecessor was booted out of the agency.
Chere Rexroat, acting architect of the Capitol, ousted five people from leadership roles in the months after her predecessor was booted out of the agency. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Five former leaders at the Architect of the Capitol have taken legal action against the agency after getting removed from their roles, in complaints that allege employment discrimination at the agency responsible for the upkeep and preservation of the Capitol Building and grounds.

Taken together, they paint a picture of bitter office strife among the agency leadership as a scandal ousted former Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton, with descriptions of potential law violations, clashes with congressional staff and even workers investigated for going to a bar for a retirement party.

That includes a new complaint this week with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights from a former director of legislative and public affairs that alleges gender discrimination and retaliation for her reporting sexist and corrupt behavior in the agency.

The turmoil first spilled over into the court system after Blanton’s successor, Chere Rexroat, removed four men from their leadership roles in April, and they filed discrimination lawsuits against the agency in August and October.

Those court filings describe Christine Leonard, the former director of legislative and public affairs, as a problematic employee who was ageist and sexist and discriminated against veterans and accuse her of participating in their removal.

Rexroat removed Leonard from her role in September, and now Leonard has filed her own discrimination complaint against the agency, and in it she calls out Blanton, Rexroat and the four male colleagues who filed lawsuits.

Leonard’s lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld, said they filed the complaint this week in part to rebut claims made in the four earlier lawsuits.

“They’re claiming collectively that one woman, who was underpaid and dealt with legislative affairs and public affairs, ganged up on them and discriminated against them,” Wilkenfeld said. “It’s laughable. That’s half the reason why she’s bringing this case, half the reason why I’m talking to you, is because she wants to clear the record.”

A public relations agency working on Leonard’s behalf gave news outlets her Office of Congressional Workplace Rights complaint, which otherwise would not be public.

The four men who filed lawsuits are Jason Baltimore, a former general counsel; Jonathan Kraft, a former chief financial officer; William O’Donnell, a former chief administrative officer; and Peter Bahm, a former chief of staff. All of them are veterans and over the age of 40. Baltimore is Black and the rest are white.

Anita Mazumdar Chambers, the lawyer who represents Bahm, Baltimore, Kraft and O’Donnell, said Leonard was a major cause of the discrimination and dysfunction at the agency.

“Her predicament now is of her own making, and her OCWR complaint is a transparent attempt to reframe the mounting record against her,” Chambers said.

“My clients know nothing about her dismissal — they were ousted long before it, with Ms. Leonard’s participation — and they never engaged in, or supported, any discrimination against her,” Chambers said. “Any such claim is exactly backwards. They were exemplary public servants, and they didn’t deserve the shabby treatment they suffered.”

In the background of all of that is President Joe Biden’s removal of Blanton as leader of the agency after a series of ethics violations surfaced.

An inspector general report found Blanton cost taxpayers nearly $14,000 by misusing his government-issued vehicle, which was intended solely for work-to-home travel, led prohibited private tours of the Capitol while it was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic and allegedly misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer.

The lawsuits and Leonard’s complaint detail incidents from before and after Blanton’s removal. The Architect of the Capitol has sought to dismiss the lawsuits.

Internal strife

The lawsuits, which were filed in 2023 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, contend that they were unfairly removed from their positions in April in the wake of Blanton’s scandal, and they point to Leonard as being involved.

Rexroat, in her newly appointed role as acting head of the agency, regularly met with Leonard and limited her interactions with other members of the leadership team, the lawsuits state, and Leonard was among those who circulated a list of employees to terminate.

The lawsuits point out Rexroat terminated all four of the veteran men but not the remaining four women executives or a man who had just started on the job — and it casts blame on Leonard. They also accuse the AOC public affairs office, which Leonard led, of leaking an email to The Hill and Roll Call that implicated them in Blanton’s misdeeds.

The lawsuits describe Leonard as someone who “believed there were too many male veterans in executive positions at the AOC” and criticized the military language Baltimore, Kraft and O’Donnell used, saying they participated in “mansplaining” during work meetings.

Early in 2022, an AOC employee filed a complaint against Leonard with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights alleging, among other things, gender discrimination, O’Donnell’s lawsuit states.

“Leonard resented men in positions of authority above her in rank and routinely demeaned women who served under her,” one of the lawsuits states.

Later that year, in May, an anonymous AOC review on Glassdoor accused Leonard of discriminating against her female reports. The review calls her “abusive” and describes her as someone who is “mean, incompetent, vindictive, constantly lies, yells at and bullies’ employees.”

“She is two-faced and discriminates against female employees. Very long hours. Ms. Leonard created a toxic hostile work environment in less than 4 months. Her staff are fleeing. She is very disorganized and has no idea what is going on,” the review on Glassdoor says.

That, according to Baltimore’s lawsuit, prompted the agency to hire an outside lawyer to examine the allegations, which was later closed with inconclusive results. When Leonard pushed for the AOC to respond to the review, Blanton and Baltimore ultimately told Leonard the agency could not do so.

Leonard told Rexroat and Senate staffers that Baltimore improperly gave legal advice to Blanton regarding his misusing his government vehicle, the lawsuit says.

Leonard’s lawsuit

Leonard is asking for $300,000 in damages in a complaint that details her experiences in that role prior to her removal in September. She contends the AOC paid her less than similarly situated male colleagues, refused her adequate administrative support, restricted her communication channels, denied her flexibility in her schedule and gave preferred work opportunities to male employees.

Leonard alleges a sexist and corrupt culture at the agency existed during Blanton’s tenure as architect of the Capitol and carried on under Rexroat. Leonard alleges that during Blanton’s leadership at the agency, he “perpetuated a sexist environment by refusing to acknowledge or respond to sexist and disrespectful behavior towards women.”

And she says that Blanton allowed three male colleagues — Baltimore, Kraft and O’Donnell — to “talk over women during meetings,” drop them from email chains and exclude women from conversations of consequence.

Leonard accuses Blanton of drinking alcohol in his office with his wife and friend before the State of the Union on Feb. 7, 2023. Two days later, Blanton was brought before the House Administration Committee in what turned out to be a disastrous hearing for him.

Later that night, he called Leonard, according to the complaint, and tried to offer her “future inducements” for the next State of the Union and disclosed confidential information about a Democratic member’s interaction with the Capitol Police, information Leonard reported to Congress. It also claims Leonard blew the whistle on several inappropriate and illegal acts, including an allegation that staff of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy violated a law about improper use of government funds by requesting wooden gavels be made for him out of trees on the Capitol complex to be given away as gifts.

A former McCarthy aide familiar with the interactions said the agency made gavels for offices as a practice and that McCarthy did not ask for any as gifts.

Leonard alleges that after Blanton’s dismissal, Rexroat made Leonard communicate with her through Rexroat’s assistants, something that wasn’t the case for male colleagues of Leonard, she alleged.

Leonard reported her concerns about Rexroat to the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights in September and was removed from her role at the agency days later without a reason, the complaint states.

When it came to the gavels for McCarthy, Leonard said she reported that to Baltimore but that Rexroat approved the request. Leonard also said she reported that Senate Republican staffers asked for free food from AOC restaurant vendors and that a former Senate Democratic staffer asked her to support his demand for immediate work on construction projects that didn’t go through the proper approval process.

“I believe the Agency removed me from my position because I am a woman and because I reported the sexist and corrupt behaviors that I witnessed,” the complaint states.

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