WASHINGTON ― Constant tension. Occasional screaming. Unreasonable hours. Impossible expectations. Hardly any way out.
Current and former members of Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy’s staff described a congressional office with a toxic atmosphere, one where Murphy and longtime chief of staff Susan Mosychuk terrorized underlings and devised ways to prevent them from leaving.
Murphy has resigned from Congress ― effective Oct. 21 ― ostensibly for asking his mistress, Shannon Edwards, to get an abortion. Murphy, ever the good Republican, says he’s anti-abortion.
But, as Politico reported last week, part of the reason the eight-term representative is abruptly leaving office is over how badly he treated his staff. If that’s the case, some former employees suggested Mosychuk should leave, too.
“I don’t think she’ll be allowed to stay,” one former Murphy staffer told HuffPost, “but I think the greatest tragedy of this whole situation is he’s taking the brunt of the blame for this.”
“He’s not the first member to cheat on his wife,” this former aide continued, “but Susan was the one who created this situation.”
Accounts differed on how bad Murphy’s office was for staff. The current legislative director, Christopher Schell ― whose mistreatment at the hands of Murphy was detailed by Mosychuk in a June memo ― suggested that recent news reports of the abuse didn’t reflect his experience. But the consensus from former aides who talked to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity was that their time working for Murphy was so bad it left them mentally scarred.
“I can’t emphasize enough how scary it was to be in that office, because that office is the most terrifying place,” another ex-staffer said.
The Politico story detailing some of the abuse Mosychuk dished out to staff said she would call aides “worthless,” their work “garbage.” Murphy could also lose his temper. “The Congressman would dress you down if you didn’t spell out an acronym,” one former staffer told HuffPost.
But the abuse from Mosychuk and Murphy was also more subtle than the occasional outburst or demeaning comment. The office found ways to mistreat staff within the House rules ― long hours (even during recess), expectations that employees almost always be at their desks, directives that aides not check personal email or use messaging apps like Gchat.
““I can’t emphasize enough how scary it was to be in that office.”
Murphy also required extraordinary preparation for even the most routine meetings. “He couldn’t open a door without a memo,” one former staffer said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon to get multiple emails on a Sunday, within minutes of each other, with multiple “Urgent” messages in a subject line when the email wasn’t urgent at all. The former aide showed HuffPost screenshots of this behavior.
Perhaps the worst example of the office perverting House rules ― while still operating within the letter of the law ― was how Murphy and Mosychuk used the student loan repayment program to strong-arm employees into staying in a poisonous work environment.
The program, meant to benefit House staffers, repays up to $833 a month to federal student loan providers for employees who agree to stay in their jobs for at least a year. If they quit early, an office can demand repayment.
The operate word there is “can.” In practice, offices very rarely ask employees who don’t finish a full year to pay back the money. “The member has the option to waive this repayment at his/her discretion,” a House overview of the program states. But in Murphy’s office, it was well known that anyone who left before a full 12 months would have to reimburse the House.
Mosychuk actively encouraged staff to sign up for the program, aides said, and employees would either have to stay for a year, or find a way to pay back the money.
Plenty of staff chose the latter.
Turnover in Murphy’s office was unusually high. In the memo that Mosychuk wrote to Murphy in June, she says staff turnover was nearly 100 percent in one year, and that the office had lost more than 100 employees since she started in 2003.
Mosychuk herself paints Murphy as volatile and impossible to please in that memo. She describes the episode involving Murphy’s new legislative director, or LD, in a way that suggests the Congressman, who claims to be a practicing psychologist, acted like a child.
You were storming around as we walked in, as we sat down for prep — having just arrived literally moments ago — you started in on the LD and verbally abused him, harassed him, chastised him and criticized all his work products. You called many of the work products that he literally gave up his weekend to produce as ‘useless.’ You pushed other documents off the table onto the floor because they weren’t what you wanted. Then you got angry and demanded we find the documents that you had just thrown on the ground. All the staff were scared of you.
Mosychuk also says the memo’s purpose was to “formally” inform Murphy of the office’s “vulnerability to yet more legal action as a result of your behavior.” But two former staff members said they thought it was a “CYA” memo (“cover your ass,” if we’re spelling out acronyms).
Staffers said they were aware of rumors of a sexual relationship between Murphy and Mosychuk. According to former employees, one ex-aide once saw Mosychuk sitting on Murphy’s lap. Murphy’s former district director, Nick Rodondo, told a local radio station that he saw Mosychuk and Murphy feed each other. And, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Murphy wrote an email to his mistress admitting he “fell into” a relationship with a woman named “Susan.”
“I did not see its toxicity until I was months into it,” Murphy wrote to Edwards, the woman with whom he had an affair.
Mosychuk also claims in her memo that Murphy had “blocked me on your cellphone,” and said the Congressman had “inaccurately stated that I am blackmailing you.”
One current staffer said that may refer to potentially reporting Murphy’s volatile behavior. But former aides, who still stay in touch on group text message threads, have conjectured that the “blackmail” referred to Murphy’s relationship with Mosychuk.
One former employee said Murphy allowed Mosychuck’s abuse of staff “because he was either in love with her, or she was blackmailing him, and we all thought it was ‘B.’”
“She told us to ask permission to go to the restroom and justified it by accusing us of not being competent enough to leave during times that weren’t busy.”
While no one on staff dared broach the matter with their bosses, that was a courtesy of privacy that employees themselves did not enjoy. Computer screens were positioned so that Mosychuk could make sure staffers were working at all times. She read their emails. She even wanted to know when they were going to the bathroom.
“Quite literally she told us to ask permission to go to the restroom and justified it by accusing us of not being competent enough to leave during times that weren’t busy,” one ex-staffer said. “Constant comments like that made us feel stupid and guilty.”
If Mosychuk did find you away from your desk, she would email you with some “trumped up emergency,” according to this former employee, and would make you return to the office as soon as possible, where she would berate you for “neglecting” your job duties.
“It was like a prison,” the staffer said.
There does seem to be some dispute over how bad the office is now. With such a high turnover, there are different generations of Murphy staffers ― and some generations seem worse than others.
In an earlier era, employees were expected to be at the office around 8:30 a.m. ― even when the House was in recess ― and they rarely left before 7 p.m. Current staff now sometimes leave by 6 p.m. when lawmakers are out of town.
“It’s not unusual for us to close at 5:30 on a Friday,” one current staffer said, braggingly.
Ex-staff also remember Mosychuk being stricter about staying at their desks. Two former employees said it used to be so bad that aides would try to distract Mosychuk so that workers could meet with other chiefs of staff for a quick job interview over coffee. Now the rules seem to have loosened, even if, as one aide put it, there’s still “a general sentiment that you should be at your desk as much as possible.”
The current feeling is employees should probably bring lunch back to their desks, but if someone ate a sandwich in the cafeteria, this aide said, “no one’s going to get pilloried for that.”
One aspect common among all generations of Murphy staffers was the feeling they had no one to turn to. Technically, there is an Office of Compliance, where House staffers can report mistreatment. But the sense among aides was that, if they reported an issue, it would immediately get back to Murphy and Mosychuk.
“Everybody is terrified to report something,” one former aide said, “because whether you’re on the Hill or off the Hill, there’s a consequence.”
“I had heard from former staffers that the only way to stop this was to go after [Murphy],” the aide continued, “which I didn’t want to do.”
Staffers were mostly just trying to find jobs elsewhere, they said, and they knew if it got back to Murphy and Mosychuk that they had reported an incident, their bosses could effectively “blackball” them with other congressional offices. (The office employee handbook makes clear that email can be screened: “Employees should not harbor any expectation of privacy in documents created on the equipment provided to them by the Office, including email.”)
“The only HR in Congress are the bills,” another former aide said. “There was nowhere to go. Talking to Ethics or [the Office of] Compliance would involve Susan. She had the ability to keep her job security, you did not.”
Some Murphy staffers said that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was close to Murphy, had to have known Murphy mistreated his staff. “There is no way he didn’t,” one staffer said.
Ryan’s office, however, said otherwise.
“The speaker was not aware of this,” AshLee Strong, Ryan’s press secretary, told HuffPost.
Still, it’s fair to ask why Ryan didn’t know.
How is it that an office with such high staff turnover did not raise flags for congressional leadership? Why is it that staff seemed to be so scared of reporting issues to the Office of Compliance? And what will congressional leaders do now about Mosychuk’s continued presence in the office, even after Murphy’s resignation and the news reports about her mistreatment of staff?
A request for comment from Murphy went unreturned. And when HuffPost confronted Mosychuk earlier this week in the Murphy office, she had nothing to say.
If you’re a current or former congressional staff member who has experienced or witnessed staff abuse, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.