Ex-aides say congressman and wife made them his servants
By RACHAEL BADE, ALEX ISENSTADT and KYLE CHENEY
05/25/2018 12:07 PM EDT
Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett and his wife turned the congressman’s staff into personal servants, multiple former employees to the freshman Republican told POLITICO — assigning them tasks from grocery shopping to fetching the congressman’s clothes to caring for their pet dog, all during work hours.
POLITICO has spoken with four former staffers who detailed a deeply dysfunctional office in which the congressman and his wife, Flanna, often demanded that staff run personal errands outside their typical congressional duties. The couple called on staff to pick up groceries, chauffeur Garrett’s daughters to and from his Virginia district, and fetch clothes that the congressman forgot at his Washington apartment. They were even expected to watch and clean up after Sophie, their Jack Russell-Pomeranian mix, the aides said.
The staffers said they feared that if they refused Garrett‘s or his wife’s orders — both were known for explosive tempers — they would struggle to advance in their careers. It wasn't just full-time staff: many of the allegedly inappropriate requests were made of interns, the former aides said.
“I didn’t know who I was working for: Was I working for him? Was I working for her?” said one of those staffers who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We became their gofers.”
A spokesman for Garrett, Matt Missen, declined to address a detailed list of complaints about the office.
“We see no reason to respond to anonymous, unfounded allegations primarily targeting Congressman Garrett’s wife, made by POLITICO’s ‘unnamed’ sources,” he said. “It is easy to spread untruths and even easier to exaggerate and imply wrongdoing when none exists.”
The behind-the-scenes turmoil boiled over Tuesday evening, when Garrett’s chief of staff, Jimmy Keady, abruptly parted ways with the congressman. His exit, multiple sources say, came amid a dispute with Garrett over the couple’s alleged misuse of official resources. Multiple sources raised the issue with the congressman, and senior staffers tried to rectify the situation repeatedly.
On Wednesday, Garrett, a 46-year-old Army veteran and former state senator, began telling associates that he was considering not running for reelection — stunning Republicans in Virginia and Washington. But a day later, he reversed course, saying during a rambling 30-minute news conference that he would in fact seek another term.
“There is no way in heck that I’m not going to be back here in 2019 as a member of the Congress representing the 5th District of Virginia. Too darn much is at stake,” Garrett told reporters.
Much of the controversy stemmed from Garrett’s wife, Flanna, a frequent presence in his House office. Former staffers said she comes to work with him on most weekdays.
Early in his tenure, staffers say, Flanna began asking aides to perform what they considered to be tasks that were unofficial and personal in nature. One staffer recalled an instance in which he had been asked to pick her up from the grocery store, drive her to the couple’s apartment and help her unload groceries. Tom Garrett was at a baseball game and was unable to help, the staffer was told at the time.
Garrett also had staffers run errands for him. From time to time, two former staffers recalled, the congressman would arrive to work having forgotten to wear a belt or with a stain on his shirt, they said. Garrett, they said, would dispatch aides to his apartment to pick up fresh clothes for him.
Aides also grew acquainted with the couple’s dog, who often came to the office with the Garretts. Staffers were expected to watch the dog during office hours, and one aide did so over a weekend. Several aides said the couple would sometimes seem to forget the dog was in the office. When that happened, at the end of the day, aides were responsible for transporting it back to Garrett’s Washington apartment.
One source said the dog occasionally defecated on the floor and aides had to clean up the mess.
Aides also served as drivers for the congressman’s older daughters from a previous marriage, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter. Interns or other staffers were sent to Scottsville, Virginia, where the two lived in Garrett’s district, to pick them up and bring them to Washington. Scottsville is a three-hour drive from D.C.
Garrett’s conduct could raise ethics concerns. The House Ethics manual prohibits lawmakers from using staff for anything other than official congressional duties. Members are explicitly barred from instructing aides to do personal errands in the manual, which also recounts situations in which staff were wrongly told to fetch personal mail, clean a member’s home and pay a member’s bills.
Missen said there is “no ethics investigation” into the office and that “to ensure that all staff follow the rules, Congressman Garrett has had lawyers from the House Ethics Committee meet with him and his staff (to include district staff via telephone) to brief everyone on the ethics rules pertaining to congressmen and staff, and to answer any questions.”
Staffer say the atmosphere in the office was toxic, however, and the demands were far outside what should reasonably be expected of congressional aides. Flanna would reach out to aides at all hours of the night, according to two former staffers. One person recalled an incident in which Flanna lashed out at a staffer for not picking up the congressman from his apartment after he overslept.
Former aides said they were afraid to refuse Flanna’s instructions. Some said they performed them without protest because they worried they’d be fired.
Others, however, left because they couldn’t take it anymore. Since taking office in January 2017, Garrett has had among the highest levels of turnover in the House, according to records compiled by legislative data company LegiStorm. More than 60 percent of his staff left in 2017, compared with the House’s typical 25 percent turnover rate that year, making the office fourth out of more than 400 legislative shops.
“I came aboard because I really, really believed in the message being presented and believed in Garrett as a person and as congressman,” said one the former aides. “I can take hard work. What I can’t put up with is these just mundane tasks that [were] being asked to be completed by him and his wife that had nothing to do with the job.”
That same staffer said he told a senior aide that running the Garretts’ personal errands was “effed up.” The senior staffer responded that if he couldn’t handle it, this was not the job for him.
Just hours before his news conference on Thursday, Garrett decided he wanted one of his departed staffers back.
That morning, he tried to hire back Keady, the former chief of staff who objected to the congressman’s use of office resources.
Keady declined the offer.