Washington — Rep. John Conyers’ attorney is demanding to know why Democratic lawmakers calling for Conyers’ resignation aren’t also urging the departure of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat who also faces allegations of sexual harassment.
Attorney Arnold Reed last week noted that Franken has five accusers, while Conyers has four, alluding to a possible racial component to the calls for Conyers to resign. Conyers is black, and Franken is white.
“At the end of the day, Nancy Pelosi is going to have to explain, what is the discernible difference between Al Franken and John Conyers?” Reed told reporters.
“You have to ask Nancy Pelosi and the rest of them who are putting this pressure on the congressman and not these other individuals.”
No Senate Democrats have called on Franken to step down in a chamber where 52 Republican senators hold a narrow majority. The former “Saturday Night Live” comedian and writer has admitted to some of the allegations against him and apologized, but has indicated he doesn’t plan to resign.
Two new accusers emerged Thursday, including an Army veteran who claimed she, like three others, was groped while posing for pictures with Franken.
Conyers has repeatedly denied accusations that he sexually harassed female aides, including inappropriate touching, on various occasions dating to 1997. The Detroit Democrat has admitted to settling a 2014 complaint with former staffer Marion Brown for $27,000 from his office account but Reed said it was to avoid the time and expense of protracted litigation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and three other Democratic House leaders turned on Conyers last Thursday, saying he should step down as another of the accusers went public with her story. Republicans hold a 241-196 majority in the House.
Four members of the Michigan delegation – Democratic Reps. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, Sandy Levin of Royal Oak and Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland – and several other lawmakers have also urged Conyers to depart.
“Zero tolerance means consequences for everyone,” Pelosi said in her announcement. “No matter how great, the legacy is no license to harass or discriminate. In fact, it makes it even more disappointing.”
A Pelosi spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment to Reed’s criticism.
Even South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in the House, said his friend of 50 years and fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus should step down, calling the complaints against Conyers “credible.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, and other black lawmakers in Congress have suggested a different standard is being applied to Conyers.
“We’ve not been asked about it much, but Blake Farenthold on the Republican side ... settled a sex harassment suit – and Al Franken, one of our Democratic colleagues on the Senate side, ... admitted to past actions of unwanted touching or groping,” Black Caucus Chairman Richmond said after the group’s weekly lunch Thursday on Capitol Hill.
“And we talked about John Conyers who vehemently denies that any of these actions have happened.”
Farenthold, a Texas Republican, settled a sexual harassment claim brought by his former spokeswoman for $84,000 in taxpayer money, Politico reported Friday.
Franken and Conyers have said they will cooperate with ethics investigations of their behavior, but the probes are expected to take months.
Southfield Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who as secretary is part of the Black Caucus’ executive committee, has not said her Michigan colleague should resign.
“They often refer to the Black Caucus as the ‘Conscience of Congress,’” Lawrence said. “There should be investigation, due process and accountability for all members. To say that we should bypass due process slaps in the face of what we stand for as Congress.”
Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said the sets of allegations against Conyers and Franken are incomparable. Conyers’ accusers described a “long pattern of behavior,” whereas Franken’s accusers discussed “brief situations,” she said
“Groping someone’s butt once is not in the same category as continually humiliating and sexually harassing women who work with you,” Demas said.
Another contrast is that taxpayers were on the hook to pay out a settlement by Conyers, and “we don’t know of any cases like that for Franken,” she said.
Conyers is attempting to distract from the allegations by turning it into a racial issue because he does not want to resign, Demas said, despite Pelosi and other Democratic leaders sending “the strongest signal they can.”
“He’s not taking the hint,” she said. “So he is going to blow the place up if he has to go down.”
Courtney Nichols, a labor and employment attorney at Plunkett Cooney in Bloomfield Hills, said it’s difficult to compare any two sexual harassment cases because the circumstances surrounding each case are always different.
“It’s safe to say that what happened with Al Franken and what happened with John Conyers is probably very different,” Nichols said.
“With Conyers, we’ve heard what was allegedly occurring and that he was using his position to allegedly control staffers,” she said. “I think that they are different in that regard.”
Nichols said allegations of sexual harassment should not be leveraged as a “political maneuver or a mechanism for identity politics” because it distracts from the underlying seriousness of the issue.