Conyers not resigning over claims, says attorney
A lawyer for U.S. Rep. John Conyers said late Wednesday the Detroit Democrat will not resign amid an ethics probe into allegations of sexual harassment and a settlement with a former staffer.
Attorney Harold Reed, who is representing the 88-year-old lawmaker and longest-serving active member in the U.S. House, said Conyers takes the allegations “very seriously.”
However, “at this juncture, the congressman is not resigning over these allegations. They’re allegations, No. 1. And No. 2, if everybody was called upon to resign over allegations, half the House, half the Senate, including the president of the United States, would have to step down.”
“John Conyers wants individuals to know that he continues to serve and will continue to serve to the best of his ability.”
Accusations against Conyers first surfaced Monday 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.
Conyers’ attorney also dismissed a Washington Post report Wednesday that another woman, Melanie Sloan, whom Conyers hired in 1995 as minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, said the congressman did not sexually harass her but acted inappropriately and abusively.
“There was nothing I could do to stop it,” Sloan said in a Post interview.
The report centered on Sloan, a high profile-lawyer and former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Reed questioned Sloan’s timing and said he doubted her claims.
“This is the most powerful woman arguably in Washington when it comes to this behavior,” Reed said, adding her allegation was “fundamentally incongruous with the truth. ... Stories like that cast a pall over women who have legitimate claims.”
While they have not called for Conyers to step down, several Democratic colleagues asked for the House Ethics Committee investigation and at least one has called on Conyers to relinquish his role as ranking member of the prestigious House Judiciary Committee.
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-New York, said Wednesday it “would not be appropriate” for Conyers to remain in the powerful panel post given the ethics probe.
Conyers should “step down as the ranking member, with the opportunity if he defends himself and says and shows there is nothing there, that he could come back,” Meeks told CNN.
The ethics panel can examine “whether or not there’s a practice or pattern,” Meeks said, and additional considerations should be made when the committee completes its probe.
Meeks and Conyers are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Conyers helped found in 1971.
In a withdrawn lawsuit that surfaced Tuesday, a former staffer alleged repeated and escalating harassment by Conyers after she began working in his office as a scheduler in July 2015, saying she had been given extra responsibilities because of his “age and failing mental capacities.”
By the summer of 2016, Conyers was harassing her daily, she said in the complaint, accusing him of rubbing her shoulders, kissing her forehead and covering or attempting to hold her hand.
The Detroit News is not publishing the woman’s name due to the nature of her claims and decision to withdraw the suit. She did not return voicemails left on the phone number she listed in court records.
Buzzfeed previously published notarized affidavits from three other staffers dated 2014. 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.
Conyers settled a complaint by one of the former staffers in 2015, denying her allegations but paying her through his Member’s Representational Allowance, a taxpayer-funded account that is supposed to be used for office operations.
Conyers put the former staffer back on his payroll in mid-2015, paying her $27,111.74 between June 16 and Sept. 15, according to salary data compiled by the website Legistorm.
Settlements for complaints filed with the Office of Compliance are typically approved by the Committee on House Administration. But former Rep. Candice Miller, a Harrison Township Republican who chaired the committee and now serves as Macomb County public works commissioner, said the Conyers’ settlement “did not come through the normal channels.”
“It never came through our committee,” Miller said. “He did it out of the normal channels. He paid for it through his budget.”
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, said Wednesday he is preparing legislation to unseal congressional settlement records, bar use of taxpayer dollars to pay claims and prohibit members from using office budgets to camouflage payments, calling the latter “a Conyers rule.”
“Members of Congress cannot be allowed to use the American people’s money as a personal slushfund to cover wrongdoing,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter.
The House Ethics Committee said Tuesday it will probe allegations that Conyers sexually harassed his employees, discriminated against staffers based on age or used official resources for “impermissible” personal use.
Several Michigan Democrats had called for the House investigation, and Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called the allegations “incredibly serious and disheartening.”
Conyers confirmed Tuesday that his office reached a financial settlement with a former staffer but denied accusations of sexual misconduct.
“In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so,” Conyers said in a statement.
His office settled the complaint “in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation,” he said, calling the $27,111.74 expense “an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”
Asked about the 2017 lawsuit filed by his former scheduler, a Conyers spokeswoman simply noted the accuser “voluntarily decided to drop the case.”
The withdrawn complaint alleges a long-running series of inappropriate actions by Conyers, including harassment during a car ride to and at a White House event in April 2016. The woman said he urged her to “come home with him” and continued “to touch her against her wishes the entire evening.”
In one instance, the woman said, she was able to use a camera phone on her office desk “to catch some of these events on tape.”
The woman had asked the court to seal her complaint “to protect the reputation of the high profile person” she was suing. She withdrew the suit after Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly refused her request to shield court records from the public.
In her initial complaint, the woman said she had “extreme admiration and respect” for Conyers’ legislative work “as a Civil Rights icon.”
Separate records identify the woman as a possible relative of Cynthia Martin, Conyers’ former chief of staff whose tenure ended in controversy. The News was not able to reach either woman to discuss their connection.
The House Ethics Committee is already investigating whether Conyers authorized Martin to be paid for four months in 2016 — from April 20 to Aug. 25 — when she may not have done any official work.
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.
The withdrawn complaint from Conyers’ former scheduler alleged sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, retaliation and wrongful termination, and reckless infliction of emotional distress.
The woman claimed Conyers’ wife, former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers, called her a “whore” when she was hired and pushed staff to fire the woman after she did not provide a medical certificate when requesting medical leave in July of 2016.
The complaint referred to Monica Conyers as a “known brawler” and said the staffer felt threatened anytime the congresswoman’s wife was in Washington D.C. The woman allegedly told a colleague the situation was a “time bomb waiting to happen.”
Monica Conyers, who spent time in federal prison for bribery, filed for divorce in late 2015. The complaint suggests the congressman’s decision to hire the scheduler was a “partial cause.” John and Monica Conyers later reconciled and remain married.
The woman who filed the complaint said she has known Conyers since 2006. She previously worked in his campaign office, traveled with him to campaign events and worked as a House Judiciary staffer at his “behest” from 1997 to 1998.
She said Conyers did not “make an inappropriate advances or touch” her inappropriately until she worked in his office.
Detroit News Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Mark Hicks contributed.