U.S. Rep. John Conyers said Sunday he will step down as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee during a congressional ethics probe of sexual harassment allegations against him and a settlement with a former staffer.
“After careful consideration and in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me, I have notified the Democratic Leader of my request to step aside as Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee during the investigation of these matters," Conyers, D-Detroit, said in a statement issued by his office.
Accusations against Conyers first surfaced Nov. 20 when Buzzfeed News reported on a 2015 settlement he reached with a former staffer. On Tuesday, the site reported on a sexual harassment lawsuit a former staffer withdrew after a federal judge refused her request to seal the records to protect the congressman’s public reputation.
“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger," Conyers said in a release on Sunday. "I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics."
The House Ethics Committee is investigating Conyers after receiving allegations of sexual harassment and age discrimination involving staff members as well as using “official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”
Conyers, 88, says he will fully cooperate.
“To be clear, I would like very much to remain as Ranking Member. There is still much work to be done on core concerns like securing civil rights, enacting meaningful criminal justice reform, and protecting access to the ballot box. These challenges could not be more pressing in the face of an Administration that cares little for the rule of law and a President whose actions and conduct cheapens our discourse every day."
In a statement Sunday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she welcomed Conyers’ decision to give up the committee leadership post.
“Zero tolerance means consequences,” Pelosi said. “Any credible accusation must be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment."
The California Democrat noted that the House in the coming week will vote on requiring anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and their staffs. She suggested that nondisclosure agreements like the one Conyers signed to settle the 2015 complaint should be made public.
Earlier Sunday, Pelosi described Conyers as an “icon” for women’s rights and declined to say whether the longtime lawmaker should resign over the allegations. She insisted that he will do the “right thing.”
“We are strengthened by due process,” Pelosi said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ‘’Just because somebody is accused — was it one accusation, is it two? … He’s done a great deal to protect women.”
The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, who ran against Conyers in 2014, said the move "might be the beginning of his end."
"I don't know how he can serve as embroiled as he is," said Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship. "However, a person needs to be given due process. Here's a man that spent much of his life working for others, it would be a shame for this to be his epilogue."
Twelve former Conyers staffers defended him in a joint statement issued Sunday evening.
“While we do not pass judgment on the specific allegations reported in the press or the women who brought them, our experiences with Mr. Conyers were quite different than the image of him being portrayed in the media,” they said. “Mr. Conyers was a gentleman and never behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner in our presence. He was respectful, valued our opinions, challenged our thinking, and treated us as professionals.”
The women said, however, that they “believe in due process and support allowing the ethics investigation to run its course.”
In the 2014 Democratic primary Conyers campaigned harder than usual in his bid for a 26th term, after a political scare almost sidetracked his decades long congressional career. The higher public profile came after Sheffield, a family friend and son of a late well-known Detroit labor and civil rights activist, almost got him booted from the ballot and questioned whether he was mentally and physically up to the job.
A federal judge ordered Conyers back on the primary ballot, overriding local and state election officials who had determined he was hundreds of eligible signatures short of qualifying.
Susan Demas, owner and editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said Conyers' decision to step down from the Judiciary post is unlikely to stem calls for his resignation.
“He has to resign, and I think most Democrats will probably acknowledge that,” she said. “Some will say it publicly, but I don’t think this is going to be the end of the allegations against him, and if Democrats want to take a lead on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, they can’t allow him to stay in office.”
Those talks are already happening, Demas said.
“It’s going to be up to the Michigan delegation and the caucus leadership in Washington to tell him under no certain terms it’s time to go.”
Detroit consultant Steve Hood, who worked with Conyers on past campaigns, said he does not think Conyers should have relinquished the post, suggesting the veteran congressman likely was pressured by his fellow Democrats who were already angling for a leadership change on the committee.
“If he didn’t do anything wrong, he shouldn’t have stepped down,” Hood said. If he didn’t sexually harass these women, he shouldn’t have stepped down.”
The allegations tarnish Conyers’ legacy but do not overshadow his past work on civil rights issues, Hood said, predicting voters would re-elect Conyers if an election were held today.
“He made a mistake using taxpayer funds to pay the settlement, and he’s called for an investigation, just like (Sen. Al) Franken did,” Hood said. “He’s handled it with dignity.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.