Federal Housing Agency Employee Secretly Taped Director's Sexual Advances Toward Her

Aug 21, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 1:42 pm

An employee at the Federal Housing Finance Agency says that she secretly recorded conversations with director Melvin Watt that bolster her harassment, retaliation and equal-pay claims against Watt and the agency

In 2015, Simone Grimes had been filling two jobs — hers and one she had been promoted to. But she never got the pay increase she had been promised. That decision, she was told, would require the director to sign off.

"That's kind of when director Watt began his advances," Grimes says. "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 kept asking to have her pay match that of her predecessor. Each time, she was told the decision was Watt's. In May, Grimes filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and on Monday, she also filed a lawsuit against the housing agency for alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act.

Watt, whose agency regulates housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is one of the few top holdovers from the Obama administration. He has denied the allegations and faces multiple federal investigations.

In a statement last month, Watt said: "The selective leaks related to this matter are obviously intended to embarrass or to lead to an unfounded or political conclusion."

But Grimes says conversations she recorded on her cellphone with Watt over the past year and a half prove otherwise.

"I was doing two jobs and I was being paid about 70 cents per dollar [compared] to my predecessor who was doing only one of those jobs," she says. "So I was simply asking to right that."

Grimes has provided NPR parts of her recordings, which were quoted in the EEOC complaint. She says they verify her claims that Watt held up her pay raise as he pressed her for a relationship. 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."

Grimes says he repeatedly emphasized that he had the power to grant her what she sought.

"Is it better to go through a charade process to get you the job, or is it better for me to just give you the job? Because I don't have to go through a bid process, I don't have to go through an application process," Watt said on the tape.

Grimes says it didn't end there. "You know, he would make comments about my looks, about what I'm wearing," she says. "It was always front and center."

She says she still reports to the very people she's accusing in her complaints, and says they've retaliated against her.

"I have continued to endure this position and try to see it through to the end and be clear with the agency that they are not knocking the wind out of me, I am not losing my stride," Grimes says. "I will continue with this, because I work there, and I know I'm not the only person."

The agency and Watt declined to comment about the recordings. Watt's five-year term as head of the agency expires in January.

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The director of a national regulatory agency has been accused of sexual harassment. His name is Melvin Watt, and he heads up the Federal Housing Finance Agency. An employee there named Simone Grimes claims that Watt harassed her, denied her equal pay and tried to retaliate against her. And she says she has the tapes to prove it. Grimes has provided NPR parts of her recordings. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has the story.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In 2015, Simone Grimes started working two jobs, hers plus the one she'd been promoted to. But she never got the pay increase she'd been promised. After nine months, she was told a raise would require sign-off from the director.

SIMONE GRIMES: That's kind of when Director Watt began his advances. So he, you know, 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.

NOGUCHI: Grimes, who is in her early 40s, kept asking to have her pay match that of her predecessor. Each time, she was told the decision was Watt's. In May, Grimes filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, yesterday, also filed a lawsuit against the housing agency for alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act.

Watt is one of the few holdovers from the Obama administration. He's denied the allegations and faces multiple investigations. In a statement last month, Watt said, quote, "the selective leaks related to this matter are obviously intended to embarrass or to lead to an unfounded or political conclusion." But Grimes says conversations she recorded on her cellphone over the last year and a half prove otherwise.

GRIMES: I was doing two jobs, and I was being paid about 70 cents per dollar to my predecessor, who was only doing one of those jobs. And so I was simply asking to right that.

NOGUCHI: She declined to provide a full transcript but says the recordings, which were included in her EEOC complaint, verify her claims that Watt held up her pay raise as he pressed her to consider a relationship. In November 2016, she says Watt asked her to meet.

GRIMES: He wanted that conversation to occur not on the premises.

NOGUCHI: She reluctantly agreed to meet at his house, where she recorded him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELVIN WATT: I'm guilty of having an attraction to you. That is true. So it makes me more conscious not to leave some impression.

NOGUCHI: She says Watt mentioned possibilities of other senior roles that came with higher pay, including that of chief operating officer.

GRIMES: 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. And his response was...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATT: I can certainly draw the line knowing that this - what I've talked to you about up to this point has nothing to do with either your beauty or my feelings.

NOGUCHI: Grimes says he repeatedly emphasized that he had the power to grant her what she sought.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATT: Is it better to go through a charade process to get you the job, or is it better for me just to give you the job? - because I don't have to go through a big process. I don't have to go through an application process.

GRIMES: And it didn't end there. You know, he would make comments about my looks, about what I'm wearing. It was always front and center.

NOGUCHI: Grimes says she still reports to the very people she's accusing in her complaints and says they've retaliated against her.

GRIMES: I have continued to endure this position and try to see it through to the end and be clear with the agency that they're not knocking the wind out of me. I'm not losing my stride. I will continue with this because I work there, and I know I'm not the only person.

NOGUCHI: The agency and Watt declined comment about the recordings. Watt's five-year term as head of the agency expires in January next year.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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