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Florida Democrat Hastings faces ethics probe

From NBC's Shawna Thomas
The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has had at least one meeting with a former congressional aide who is suing Florida Democrat Rep. Alcee Hastings for sexual harassment, according to conservative watchdog Judicial Watch.

The group confirms that it was approached by the ethics office in May of this year, as was the former aide, Winsome Packer.

Packer alleged in a March lawsuit that she was “forced to endure unwelcome sexual advances, crude sexual comments and unwelcome touching” from her boss.

Hastings has vehemently denied the charges, calling them "ludicrous" and "bizarre."

The OCE is NOT the House Ethics Committee, but it makes recommendations to the Ethics Committee on matters that they believe should be investigated further. It is a non-partisan group.

Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, tells NBC News that the House Ethics Committee itself has not approached the organization and that Fitton's group did not make a formal complaint to OCE.

The OCE "is an independent, non-partisan entity charged with reviewing allegations of misconduct against Members, officers, and staff of the United States House of Representatives and, when appropriate, referring matters to the House Committee on Ethics."

Congress created the OCE in 2008 under Pelosi in an effort to "drain the swamp." Members of the public and outside organizations can suggest to the OCE things or situations that should be investigated. After conducting an initial review, if the OCE decides to to recommend to the House Ethics Committee that the matter should be investigated further, this will be publicly posted.

Neither Hastings' lawyer or chief of staff have responded to inquiries from NBC News.

UPDATE: Hastings' lawyer, Tonya Robinson, tells NBC:

Mr. Hastings is deeply disturbed by the allegations contained in the lawsuit now pending before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and, in the strongest terms, denies the charges.  Mr. Hastings has stated unequivocally that the plaintiff's claims are untruthful and without merit.

Incidentally, the plaintiff's charges already have been the subject of extensive counseling and mediation, as the plaintiff acknowledges in her complaint.  In that context, the plaintiff's allegations were fully aired and found to be meritless, and will be shown to be meritless in court as well.

Preliminary ethics inquiries are confidential matters under the relevant rules.