WASHINGTON -- As he watched his congressional staff snipe at one another publicly yesterday, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett pronounced himself "mystified." No wonder.
The 6th District Republican's chief aide has been accused of behavior that offended three female members of his staff. The accusations arose last week and became public Monday.
Yesterday, four members of the staff called a news conference -- on their own, they said -- in a hallway outside Mr. Bartlett's offices to defend the accused, administrative assistant Tim Woodford, and to denounce one of the accusers, Deborah Royal.
"We all support Tim," said Susan Knight, the office manager. "We have never felt threatened. He never touched me offensively. He never made sexual advances. We really enjoy working with him. He treats us like family."
"It was brought up with malicious intent to get Tim out of office," said Ms. Knight.
"I assume she wants Tim's position," added Council Nedd, a staff assistant.
According to Ms. Royal, Mr. Woodford touched and examined the collarbones of several women in the office to compare their sizes; grabbed Jennifer Stephens, a legislative assistant, behind the head and jerked her head down toward his armpit during a discussion of the personal hygiene of another staff member; and told a female assistant in the Cumberland office by phone, "You are doing a fine job for a woman."
Ms. Royal, Mr. Bartlett's legislative director, denied she complained about Mr. Woodford because she wanted his job. "I am not qualified to do his job. . .I wouldn't want his job."
Staff members described Mr. Woodford as a "touchy-feely" person. Mr. Bartlett described his top aide as a person with a "very limited personal space" who frequently touches people.
Saying he was "mystified" by the flap, Mr. Bartlett attributed it to "different communications styles, different mannerisms" among the staff.
Asked if he had sought or planned to seek any resignations, Mr. Bartlett said that first, "I have to understand how this thing happened and where we are going to go from here."
"It's ridiculous. Tim is a very outgoing, friendly person. Touching is part of communication. In this stupid society, we are losing that because of all the emphasis on -- I don't know what."
Mr. Woodford said none of his comments or actions was intended to offend any of the women in the office.
"I guess I just want to get beyond this. We have to get the focus back on the member [of the House of Representatives]," he added. "I love this job and I'm happy to stay here."
Meanwhile, in Annapolis, the legislative director of Maryland National Organization for Women issued a statement saying Mr. Woodford's "alleged conduct is outrageous and lewd.
"Mr. Bartlett has the responsibility to his staff and to the women of Maryland to take these charges much more seriously than his recent statements indicate."
Kathleen N. Ryan was responding to Mr. Bartlett's statement on Monday that this was "a matter of interpersonal relationships. To try to read something overtly sexual into this is just a gross violation."
Mr. Bartlett also said Monday that any behavior construed as offensive would stop.
Ms. Royal said that Mr. Bartlett "did everything he could on Friday to alleviate the situation." He had a meeting with Mr. Woodford and five female staff members at which Mr. Woodford said he considered all of them "family" and apologized "misty-eyed" for his behavior.
"I was pleasantly surprised," she said of the meeting. "But, then the press came into it," and the atmosphere changed, with accusations of an office power play.
"He likes to say he is a friendly guy," Ms. Royal said of Mr. Woodford. "There are lots of things you can overlook. It's such a gray area. That's why I didn't say anything [earlier]. You come across as a little Barbie doll or a bitch."
"It's hard enough for women on the Hill to work in this 'man's environment.' "
Ms. Royal said of Mr. Woodford, "He is not a threatening person. It's just inappropriate behavior."