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Ethics panel urged to subpoena Rep. Conyers in probe

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The House Ethics Committee said Wednesday that it’s continuing its investigation of U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. for potential misconduct related to salary paid to an aide when she no longer performed work for the Detroit Democrat’s office.

While the committee is still reviewing the allegations, it released the findings of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which recommended the committee subpoena Conyers because he didn’t cooperate with the probe.

In a June letter to the committee, lawyers for Conyers asked the panel to dismiss the allegations, arguing that the matter relates to the dismissal of a longtime employee, who was fired under the terms of a settlement agreement that was proper under House rules and federal law.

“Mr. Conyers believed then – and still believes – that the settlement agreement and release was proper,” his lawyers wrote, noting that Conyers relied on the advice of attorneys from the Office of House Employment Counsel in terminating the employee.

“Members are accorded substantial discretion over compensation and leave policies, so they can manage their offices efficiently in the interests of their districts.”

Ethics Committee Chair Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in a Wednesday statement that the “mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.”

But the report by the Office of Congressional Ethics says its board members unanimously agreed there was “substantial” reason to believe Conyers provided Cynthia Martin, his former chief of staff, with compensation that was “not commensurate with the work she performed,” in violation House rules and standards of conduct.

Conyers allegedly authorized Martin to be paid by the U.S. House of Representatives for four months in 2016 – from April 20 to Aug. 25 – when she may have not done any official work, according to the ethics office.

Conyers’ lawyers said Martin’s settlement agreement, dated June 7, 2016, agreed to pay her two months’ worth of severance and two months and six days’ worth of leave that she had accrued before her employment was ended in late October.

House rules don’t address whether severance payments are permissible, but say compensation “may be received only for duties performed within the preceding month.”

Martin had pleaded guilty in April 2016 to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property after initially refusing to return $16,500 mistakenly transferred into her Congressional Federal Credit Union bank account. Martin agreed to pay $13,000 restitution, according to court records.

Conyers’ office said at the time that he had suspended Martin after her guilty plea.

“I was disappointed to learn of this matter. I have placed Ms. Martin on unpaid leave pending my further review,” Conyers said in a statement on April 5, 2016.

Investigators found that Conyers initially filed a payroll authorization form with the House’s Office of Payroll and Finance, placing Martin on leave without pay for approximately a three-month period, effective from April 5 to June 30, 2016.

Sixteen days later, Conyers filed a superseding payroll authorization form, shortening Martin’s leave without pay to two weeks, effective April 5 to April 19 of that year.

Martin then resumed receiving her annual compensation of $160,000, or $13,333 a month, effective April 20, 2016, according to the ethics report.

Staff from the Office of Congressional Ethics contacted Conyers’ office to try to reach Martin in June 2016, but were told she no longer worked there.

Conyers later filed another payroll authorization form, again placing Martin on leave without pay starting Aug. 25, 2016, before finally terminating her employment effective Oct. 25, 2016.

Martin had worked for Conyers for nearly 20 years, including eight as his chief of staff.

The report by the Office of Congressional Ethics said staffers requested testimony and records from Conyers, but he refused to cooperate with the office’s review.

Conyers’ lawyers accuse the Office of Congressional Ethics of violating his rights and say Conyers didn’t cooperate with the office because he had “no confidence it would handle his matter properly.”

“The Conyers office has worked diligently at all times to comply with the rules,” Conyers spokeswoman Shadawn Reddick-Smith said. “We had serious concerns about how OCE handled the matter but we are cooperating fully with the Ethics Committee to close it.”

An earlier probe of Martin by the ethics watchdog reported allegations that she had violated Washington, D.C., law, House rules and standards of conduct, and found substantial reason to believe she received pay during the April to August 2016 period when she was no longer performing work for the House.

The House Ethics Committee did not take public action on the earlier investigation into Martin’s actions, except to release the investigators’ report and findings.

It is unclear when the committee will resolve the case, and it provided no time line for its next anticipated action in the probe.