Michigan Rep. John Conyers, under a House Ethics Committee investigation over allegations he sexually harassed female staff members, said Sunday he will step aside as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee while denying he acted inappropriately during his long tenure in Congress.
In a statement, the 88-year-old lawmaker made clear he would prefer to keep his leadership role on the committee, which has wide jurisdiction over U.S. law enforcement, from civil rights and criminal justice to protections against sexual harassment. But Conyers acknowledged maintaining the position would be an undue distraction.
Conyers, first elected in 1964 and re-elected every two years winning with at least 77 percent of the vote, is rated as one of the most left-wing members of the Congress, with a 100 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. On the other hand, the conservative Freedom Works gives him a 15 percent rating, while the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity give him ratings of 8 percent and 6 percent respectively.
The House Ethics Committee now investigating the sexual harassment charges from staff is hardly the first time Conyers has been probed for violations of ethics rules.
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This summer, the committee confirmed it was continuing to look at whether he had wrongly paid his former chief of staff more than $50,000 for time she didn’t work. Conyers said he was only paying her for accrued leave time and severance as part of a separation agreement reached after she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property unrelated to her job.
In 2003, there were complaints from six unnamed Conyers aides who said they were forced to work on various campaigns, including a failed legislative campaign for Monica Conyers, on government time. A follow-up Ethics Committee report, however, focused on allegations that the congressman used staff to babysit his sons, help his wife with her law studies and chauffeur him to private events. Conyers’ office denied the accusations and eventually reached a deal to ensure staff knew where their responsibilities began and ended.
In 2014, Conyers nearly didn’t get the chance to run for re-election because of irregularities in the petitions he filed to run for office. Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett said he had used ineligible people to gather signatures, but a federal court disagreed and the state Legislature passed a law that said people who collected signatures didn’t need to be registered voters.
All these issues arose before the revelations last week of a $27,000 settlement paid to a former staffer who said Conyers had sexually harassed her. Another former staffer also filed suit earlier this year, but later withdrew the harassment lawsuit because a judge refused to seal it.
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A new allegation against Conyers arose this week when Melanie Sloan, a well-known attorney who worked as Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee in the 1990s.
She told the Detroit Free Press she was called to his office to discuss an issue only to find him “walking around in his underwear.”
“It made me increasingly anxious and depressed about going to work every day,” she said, adding that “there was no way to fix it. There was no mechanism I could use, no person I could go to.”
BuzzFeed News obtained documents in which former staff members alleged that Conyers repeatedly made sexual advances to female aides.
The report said Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged he fired her because she would not “succumb to [his] sexual advances.” Other staffers alleged that he made requests for sexual favors, inappropriately touched staffers and used congressional resources to transport women that they believed he was having affairs with at the time.
The Buzzfeed documents include four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former staff members who allege that Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sex acts, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public. Four people involved with the case reportedly verified the documents are authentic.
Perhaps the dirtiest little secret in the House that came to light as a result of the Conyers controversy is the secret mechanism by which Congress has kept an unknown number of sexual harassment allegations secret.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that Congress’ Office of Compliance paid out $17 million for 264 settlements with federal employees over 20 years for various violations, including sexual harassment. The Conyers documents, however, give a glimpse into the inner workings of the office, which has for decades concealed episodes of sexual abuse by powerful political figures.
The woman who settled with Conyers launched the complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014, alleging she was fired for refusing his sexual advances, and ended up facing a daunting process that ended with a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of more than $27,000. Her settlement, however, came from Conyers’ office budget rather than the designated fund for settlements.
Congress has no human-resources department, as most large companies do.
The process was “disgusting,” said Matthew Peterson, who worked as a law clerk representing the complainant, and who listed as a signatory to some of the documents.
“It is a designed cover-up,” said Peterson, who declined to discuss details of the case but agreed to characterize it in general terms. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
Two staffers alleged in their signed affidavits that Conyers used congressional resources to fly in women they believed he was having affairs with. Another said she was tasked with driving women to and from Conyers’ apartment and hotel rooms.
In her complaint, the former employee said Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors and often asked her to join him in a hotel room. On one occasion, she alleges that Conyers asked her to work out of his room for the evening, but when she arrived the congressman started talking about his sexual desires. She alleged he then told her she needed to “touch it,” in reference to his penis, or find him a woman who would meet his sexual demands.
She alleged Conyers made her work nights, evenings, and holidays to keep him company.
In another incident, the former employee alleged the congressman insisted she stay in his room while they traveled together for a fundraising event. When she told him that she would not stay with him, she alleged he told her to “just cuddle up with me and caress me before you go.”
“Rep. Conyers strongly postulated that the performing of personal service or favors would be looked upon favorably and lead to salary increases or promotions,” the former employee said in the documents.
Other staff members provided affidavits submitted to the Office of Compliance that outlined a pattern of behavior from Conyers that included touching the woman in a sexual manner and growing angry when she brought her husband around.
One affidavit from a former female employee states that she was tasked with flying in women for the congressman. “One of my duties while working for Rep. Conyers was to keep a list of women that I assumed he was having affairs with and call them at his request and, if necessary, have them flown in using Congressional resources,” said her affidavit. (A second staffer alleged in an interview that Conyers used taxpayer resources to fly women to him.)
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced legislation with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to overhaul the Office of Compliance process for reporting complaints, including to make what’s currently a mandatory counseling and mediation period with the employing office only optional.
Their bill would also require lawmakers accused of harassment to pay back the taxpayers. In addition, the Office of Compliance would have to publish the names of offices involved in settlements on its website.
Speier suggested the amount of taxpayer money to settle harassment cases may be even higher that $17 million if lawmakers are using their office budgets to make settlements that are officially distributed as severance payments.