Conyers admits to settlement, denies sex harassment

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. on Tuesday confirmed that his office reached a financial settlement with a former staffer but denied firing her for refusing his sexual advances.

The House Ethics Committee followed Tuesday afternoon by saying it was looking into whether Conyers may have sexually harassed staffers.

“In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so,” Conyers said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative. The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”

That statement was a reversal from what the Detroit Democrat told the Associated Press earlier Tuesday when he said he hadn’t settled any sexual harassment complaints with any staff members.

The 88-year-old congressman was responding to a report by BuzzFeed News that he settled a wrongful dismissal complaint with an employee in 2015 for $27,000 in exchange for a confidentiality agreement.

BuzzFeed on Tuesday also published the allegations of a second former staffer — a scheduler — who filed a complaint against Conyers. A spokeswoman for Conyers noted that she “voluntarily decided to drop the case.”

The news follows other sexual assault scandals riling Capitol Hill, including misconduct allegations against Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence’s chief of staff also resigned last week in the wake of allegations that he sexually harassed three former aides — which he denies.

Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, has served in the U.S. House for more than 50 years. He is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

He answered the door at his Detroit home Tuesday morning and told an AP reporter he knew nothing about any settlements with former staffers or claims of inappropriate touching.

A spokeswoman for Conyers said that, when he answered the door, Conyers mistakenly thought the reporter was asking about a more recent settlement that he was unaware of and denied.

Calls for investigation

BuzzFeed published three notarized affidavits, dated October and November 2014, allegedly signed by former Conyers staffers. The names of the staffers are redacted, as well as the names of the Wayne County notaries before whom they appeared.

The affidavits describe Conyers making advances toward female staffers that included requests for sexual favors, caressing their hands in a “sexually suggestive” way, and rubbing their legs and backs in an inappropriate manner while in the office or in public.

The accusations prompted calls for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee from House Democratic leaders and several of Conyers’ Michigan Democratic colleagues. Some said the case illustrated the need for increased transparency in settlements over misconduct by members of Congress.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, called the report “very disturbing,” and that an ethics investigation should be the next step.

“The House ought to observe a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment and discrimination,” Hoyer said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, was unaware of the Conyers settlement, according to her office. In a statement, Pelosi said, “any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee.” She did not indicate whether that applies to Conyers’ situation.

Pelosi called on the House to pass a bill by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California to eliminate confidentiality agreements and enact other reforms in how the House handles misconduct complaints. Speier wants to reform the complaint process on Capitol Hill since victims must wait nearly 90 days after an incident before even filing a complaint.

They must first go through up to 30 days of “counseling” on workplace rights and the administrative procedures with the congressional Office of Compliance. To continue pursuing the matter, the victim is required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before undergoing “mediation” for another 30 days, according to Speier.

Victims must then wait out a 30-day “cooling-off period” before they may file a formal complaint.

The Office of Compliance last week said it has paid victims more than $17 million since its creation in the 1990s. That figure includes cases related to sexual harassment but also discrimination and other workplace claims.

“There’s two issues here: One is the abuse itself. Two is using taxpayer dollars to cover it up,” Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland said on Fox Business Network. “I believe a member should be personally responsible for that.”

Huizenga said Conyers’ allegedly using his office budget to “keep this person quiet is outrageous and an abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

“The amazing part is that, in one of those affidavits, it says that they used congressional resources to fly in people to Washington, DC, for affairs for him,” Huizenga said. “If that’s the case, he should resign.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan also called the report of sexual harassment claims “extremely troubling,” though he did not name Conyers.

Ryan has asked the Committee on House Administration to conduct a review of all policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination.

“People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination,” Ryan said in a statement.

BuzzFeed reveals documents

BuzzFeed said it first received the documents from the right-wing activist Mike Cernovich but independently verified their authenticity with four people connected with the case, including the accuser. The website also linked to redacted versions of the affidavits posted online.

BuzzFeed spoke to the woman who filed the wrongful termination complaint against Conyers with the congressional Office of Compliance in 2014, but it did not name her because she is concerned about retribution.

Her case concluded with a $27,111.75 settlement in 2015 under the confidentiality agreement, according to BuzzFeed, which said the settlement money came from Conyers’ office budget and not a congressional fund used for settlements.

An unsigned draft of the agreement between the woman and Conyers’ office obtained by BuzzFeed denies her allegations.

One Conyers staffer wrote in an affidavit of witnessing Conyers rubbing the legs of female staffers in public, in the office, in cars en route to events and “at times would slide their chairs closer together in order to do so.”

The same staffer described being asked on “multiple occasions” to pick up women and deliver them to Conyers’ apartments or hotel rooms.

Another staffer said one of her duties was to “keep a list of women that I assumed he was having affairs with and call them at his request and, if necessary, have them flown in using congressional resources.”

“I was driving the Congressman in my personal car and was resting my hand on the stick shift. Rep. Conyers reached over and began to caress my hand in a sexual manner,” the staffer wrote in the affidavit.

The staffer said she told Conyers she wasn’t interested in a sexual relationship, and he withdrew his hand, according to her affidavit.

“I am personally aware of several other women who have experienced the same or similar sexual advances made towards them by Rep. John Conyers,” she said in the affidavit.

The staffer said she heard from Conyers’ constituents that it was well-known Conyers had sexual relations with staffers, and said she felt this made it “very awkward” when he rubbed their backs or put his arms around them at events, which they felt “undermined their credibility.”

A third staffer wrote in an affidavit of witnessing some of Conyers’ behavior with female staffers and counseling Conyers about his behavior.

Conyers allegedly responded by saying he would work on it, but then complained publicly to others that he wished this staffer would stop putting things in writing.

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Other Conyers’ issues

The House Ethics Committee’s investigation that was announced Tuesday is not the first time U.S. Rep. John Conyers has been accused of breaking House rules. In other cases:

■ The House Ethics Committee said in August it’s continuing to investigate Conyers for potential misconduct related to salary paid to his former chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, for four months in 2016 when she no longer performed work for his office.

■ Conyers’ son, John Conyers III, was caught using his congressional vehicle over the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday after the sport utility vehicle was broken into in Detroit and laptops and concert tickets stolen. House rules prohibit nongovernmental use of government-paid vehicles.

■ Conyers was investigated by the Ethics Committee after he was accused of inappropriately ordering staffers to work on political campaigns and do personal chores such as babysit, clean his home and tutor his wife and children. The ethics panel said in December 2006 that Conyers agreed to take steps to ensure it didn’t happen anymore.

Source: Detroit News research