House Democrats found themselves plunged into crisis on Tuesday, after reports surfaced that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) secretly settled a sexual harassment claim with a staffer in 2015 — an episode that will now be investigated by the House Ethics Committee.
Conyers acknowledged the settlement Tuesday, but forcefully denied he ever sexually harassed his former aide.
“I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so,” he said in a statement. “My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation.”
The 88-year-old Conyers — the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee — is one of the most high-profile lawmakers to be caught in the national furor over sexual harassment in the workplace, with a tidal wave of reports that have engulfed Hollywood, the media and now Congress.
Known as the “dean of the House,” Conyers was first elected in 1964 and is the longest-serving current House member, as well as one of the most prominent African-American lawmakers in Congress.
Conyers has said he will cooperate with the Ethics Committee probe, which was announced after calls for one by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that Conyers helped found.
“The Committee is aware of the public allegations that Representative John Conyers, Jr., may have engaged in sexual harassment of members of his staff, discriminated against certain staff on the basis of age, and used official resources for impermissible personal purposes,” said Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the Ethics Committee, in a statement. “The Committee… has begun an investigation and will gather additional information on these allegations.”
Conyers used funds from his Member Representation Allowance, the funds provided to each House member to hire staff and carry out their official duties, to pay a “severance package” to the female staffer who he allegedly harassed. The House Administration Committee has come under fire recently for approving millions of dollars in payments for secret settlements, including possible sexual harassment cases involving House members, without having to publicly disclose those settlements.
In her statement calling for an ethics probe into the allegations, Pelosi said there must be “zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse.” Pelosi’s office had previously said the California Democrat was unaware of the 2015 settlement.
“As members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives and to ensure a climate of dignity and respect,” Pelosi said in a statement. “As I have said before, any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee.”
Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Zoe Lofgren of California, the two most senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee behind Conyers, also endorsed an ethics probe.
“The allegations against Ranking Member Conyers are extremely serious and deeply troubling. Obviously, these allegations must be investigated promptly by the Ethics Committee,” Nadler said in a statement.
“The Committee on Ethics should take up this matter immediately with a goal of promptly assessing the validity of the news account,” Lofgren said. “This reported behavior cannot be tolerated in the House of Representatives or anywhere else.”
Both Nadler and Lofgren have previously expressed interest in replacing Conyers atop the panel. Lofgren is a former Ethics Committee chairwoman and an ally of Pelosi. She’s also a member of the House Administration Committee, which oversees sexual harassment issues in Congress.
Buzzfeed reported on Monday night that Conyers “repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sexual favors, 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.”
Conyers reportedly “used congressional resources to fly in women they believed he was having affairs with,” according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed. Another Conyers aide “said she was tasked with driving women to and from Conyers’ apartment and hotel rooms.”
Conyers allegedly paid $27,000 in public funds to a female employee who contacted the secretive Office of Compliance with allegations about the Michigan Democrat. The documents BuzzFeed obtained have not been independently confirmed.
“The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment,” Conyers noted.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has been leading calls for reforming Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policies, said Capitol Hill investigators should also look into whether Conyers misused congressional funds to pay for the settlement “under the guise of a severance payment.”
“If this is true, the amount of taxpayer money used to settle these cases is even higher than the number that’s been provided by the Office of Compliance,” Speier said.
A prominent Michigan Democrat, Rep. Debbie Dingell, also called for an Ethics Committee investigation. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called the news “deeply disturbing,” but didn’t directly address whether Conyers should face an ethics probe.
The Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement Tuesday afternoon: “No matter the perpetrator, no matter the victim, those responsible for sexual harassment and/or sexual assault must be held accountable.”
“We encourage and expect Mr. Conyers to cooperate fully with any and all investigations into this matter,” the caucus added.
In a statement released on Tuesday morning, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) addressed the controversy without naming Conyers.
“This report is extremely troubling,” Ryan said. “Last month, I directed the Committee on House Administration to conduct a full review of all policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination. A Committee hearing last week examining this issue led to a new policy of mandatory training for all members and staff. Additional reforms to the system are under consideration as the committee continues its review.”
The Conyers case is especially sensitive for Democrats given his age — 88 — seniority, and race. Conyers is the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. He is also one of the co-founders of the CBC, a key bloc of votes within the House Democratic Caucus. Pelosi and other Democrats have been especially cautious in dealing with ethics and legal problems involving CBC members.
“This is a huge, huge problem for us,” said an aide to one longtime Democrat. “I don’t know how Pelosi is going to handle this.”
So far, no Democrats have called for Conyers to step aside, but that could change given the explosive nature of the allegations against Conyers, the huge controversy surrounding sexual harassment in recent months, and the fact that he has faced ethics problems in the past.
In 2016, Conyers came under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics for paying his former chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, for six months after she pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property, a misdemeanor. Conyers refused to cooperate with the OCE probe.
In 2009, Conyers’ wife Monica — then president of the Detroit City Council — pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
And in 2006, Conyers came under investigation by the Ethics Committee for allegedly using his staff for personal errands, including babysitting his children. No formal action was ever taken against him by the panel.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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