Attorney calls on Conyers to let former staffer speak

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The attorney representing the woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against U.S. Rep. John Conyers in 2014 is calling on the Detroit Democrat to release her from a nondisclosure agreement “so that she may have a voice to tell her own story.”

The lawyer, Lisa Bloom, also called on the congressional Office of Compliance, which handles harassment complaints, to release her client from the confidentiality agreement she was “forced to sign” when the matter was resolved in 2015.

Bloom noted that Conyers and his attorney have spoken out about the allegations and deny that Conyers sexually harassed anyone.

“The reason why we’re asking for that is Rep. Conyers has been out telling his side of the story, namely, his position that there was no sexual harassment,” Bloom said in an interview.

“I think it’s offensive that they can make statements about this situation and my client can’t because of a confidentiality agreement that was funded with taxpayer dollars.”

The woman, who had worked for Conyers, is choosing to remain anonymous at this time, said Bloom, a Los Angeles attorney and television legal analyst.

Her client would no longer have to abide by the confidentiality agreement if she were subpoenaed by the House Ethics Committee or any other body investigating the allegations. Bloom said her client would “fully” cooperate with any such probe.

Bloom’s client settled with Conyers’ office in 2015 for roughly $27,000 after filing a wrongful termination complaint claiming that she was dismissed for refusing Conyers’ advances. The news was first reported by BuzzFeed.

Conyers’ attorney, Arnold Reed, said the congressman doesn’t have the power to “unilaterally” undo the confidentiality agreement without going through House counsel and other procedures.

“Also, you can’t sign an agreement and come back six, seven months later and say, I want to take that back. Contracts wouldn’t be worth the paper that they’re written on,” Reed said.

“She had counsel in the beginning and, through her counsel, she voluntarily signed. No one forced her. She did this of her own free will.”

Bloom said that, generally, when parties to an agreement want to modify that agreement, they can.

“In this case, as long as nobody was talking about it, it was OK with my client to maintain confidentiality,” Bloom said.

“But now that Rep. Conyers and his attorney are out there telling their side, she would like to be able to now tell her story. It just seems like basic fairness.”

Conyers’s office paid the woman through his taxpayer-funded Member’s Representational Allowance account which is supposed to be used for office operations. He put the former staffer back on his payroll in 2015, paying her a total of $27,111.74, according to salary data compiled by 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 Republican who chaired the Administration Committee at the time, said the Conyers settlement was done “out of the normal channels.”

BuzzFeed also reported on a sexual harassment lawsuit withdrawn by a different staffer after a federal judge refused her request to seal the records to protect Conyers’ reputation.

The Ethics Committee said last week it intends to investigation allegations that Conyers sexually harassed employees, discriminated against staffers based on age and used official resources for “impermissible” personal use.

Conyers, who has served in Congress since 1965, said Sunday he would step down as the top Democrat on the high-profile House Judiciary Committee during the investigation.

“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger. I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics,” Conyers said in a Sunday statement.

“I am grateful to my colleagues who have called for due process before weighing judgment. I would urge them to continue to do so for any Member accused of wrongdoing. Basic fairness requires no less.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi welcomed Conyers’ decision to leave his leadership post during the probe.

“Zero tolerance means consequences,” Pelosi said in a Sunday statement. “Any credible accusation must be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment.”

At least one fellow Democrat, New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, has called on Conyers to resign from Congress.

“I’ve reviewed the allegations against him, and they’re as credible as they are repulsive,” Rice said on Twitter.

“The women who reported this behavior suffered serious professional repercussions for doing so, which is exactly why so many victims of sexual harassment and assault decide not to step forward. ... Whether it happened 40 years ago or last week, settlement or no settlement, Democrat or Republican – harassment is harassment, assault is assault. We know credible allegations when we hear them, and the same is true of hypocrisy.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said last week that Conyers should resign if it’s true he used his office budget to “cover up” allegations of sexual misconduct with staffers.

Huizenga said on Fox Business News that Conyers’ allegedly used his members’ allowance to “keep this person quiet is outrageous and an abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

Twelve former Conyers staffers defended Conyers in a joint statement late Sunday, saying they were not passing judgment on the specific allegations against him but that they had a different experience with the veteran lawmaker.

“Mr. Conyers was a gentleman and never behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner in our presence,” they said. “He was respectful, valued our opinions, challenged our thinking, and treated us as professionals.”

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