Ethics panel: Rep. Conyers under investigation

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit is under investigation for possible ethics violations, according to a Monday disclosure by the House Committee on Ethics that his office downplayed.

The nature of the allegations against the 88-year-old Democrat are unknown, but the committee acknowledged it is reviewing a May 11 referral from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates potential misconduct and forwards findings if board members believe there is “substantial reason to believe” a violation may have occurred.

Ethics Committee Chair Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and ranking Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida released a joint statement Monday indicating they have extended the previously unknown Conyers inquiry 45 days and will announce a next course of action on Aug. 9.

The mandatory disclosure of the extension “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee,” they said.

The statement is the first public acknowledgment of the committee review and Office of Congressional Ethics investigation of Conyers. The nonpartisan office, created in 2008, operates under strict confidentiality rules. Its findings would only be released when the Committee on Ethics completes its own review.

“As the Ethics Committee stated, today’s press release does not indicate that any violation has occurred,” a Conyers spokeswoman said in a statement.

“This is not a new controversy, but rather involves the same matter that the Office of Congressional Ethics released back in February. Mr. Conyers’ office has worked diligently at all times to comply with the rules, is cooperating with the Ethics Committee, and is confident that this matter can be swiftly resolved.”

Conyers' office did not respond to a follow-up request for clarification. But the office appeared to be referencing a prior ethics probe of former chief of staff Cynthia Martin, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property in April 2016 after initially refusing to return $16,500 mistakenly transferred into her Congressional Federal Credit Union bank account.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, in an October referral made public in February, recommended the committee review allegations that Martin violated Washington, D.C., law, House rules and standards of conduct.

The ethics office also said there was substantial reason to believe Martin "continued to receive compensation at a time when she was no longer providing services to the House" from April through August 2016.

“If Ms. Martin accepted compensation that was not commensurate with the work she was performing, then she may have violated House rules and standards of conduct,” the referral added.

The House Committee on Ethics did not make any public statement regarding the Martin referral but the ethics office board unanimously voted to release its findings.

The House committee on Monday also announced extensions for the review of alleged ethics violations by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and legislative staffer Michael Collins.

The Office of Congressional Ethics sent all three cases to the committee on May 11, but it’s not known how or if they are related. Luján chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Collins has worked as chief of staff to Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia.

Conyers has faced ethical scrutiny before.

In 2006, the House ethics panel said Conyers agreed to take steps with his staff to prevent them from following inappropriate orders to work on political campaigns and to do personal chores, such as babysitting for him.

Conyers admitted to “a lack of clarity” in his communication with his congressional employees in the informal inquiry launched in December 2003, according to a statement from the House Committee of Official Conduct, “and accepted responsibility for his actions.”

Congressional watchdog groups had questioned whether the investigation into Conyers’ alleged treatment of his staff made him a suitable chairman of the House’s Judiciary Committee.

Among the things Conyers agreed to do was to give a memo to each member of his personal congressional staff laying out House rules concerning the performance of campaign and other non-official work by congressional staff members and the prohibition against the performance of any campaign-related work being conducted in either his congressional or district offices.

The congressman also was required to continue keeping a detailed time-keeping system of his staff that he started during the 2005 inquiry.

In 2014, his wife, former Detroit City Council President and bribery convict Monica Conyers, refused to disclose her debts on financial statements he was required to submit.

Conyers initially disputed whether he needed to disclose his wife’s debts but later amended his disclosure form to include up to $50,000 she owed to retailer Neiman Marcus.

In 2010, Conyers’ reimbursed the U.S. Treasury $5,682 after his son used his taxpayer-funded Cadillac Escalade and reported two laptops and concert tickets were stolen during a break-in.

Monica Conyers filed for divorce from the congressman in late 2015, but the couple renewed their vows in August 2016.