Second ex-staffer accuses Conyers of sexual harassment

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A former staffer of U.S. Rep. John Conyers said the veteran lawmaker made unwanted sexual advances toward her, including inappropriate touching, adding to allegations by other unnamed former employees that have prompted a congressional investigation.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers

Deanna Maher, who worked for him from 1997 to 2005, told The Detroit News that the Detroit Democrat made unwanted advances toward her three times.

Maher is the second former Conyers staffer to go public with accusations about the veteran lawmaker. Conyers on Sunday stepped aside as the the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee amid a congressional ethics probe of sexual harassment allegations involving former staffers.

The first instance of harassment happened, Maher said, shortly after the congressman hired her in September 1997 during an event with the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I didn’t have a room, and he had me put in his hotel suite,” said Maher, 77, adding that she rejected his offer to share his room at the Grand Hyatt in Washington and have sex.

The other incidents with the now 88-year-old Conyers involved unwanted touching in a car in 1998 and another unwanted touching of her legs under her dress in 1999, she said.

Conyers’ attorney Arnold Reed questioned why Maher would continue to work for Conyers for so many years after the alleged incidents. He also said Maher’s allegations are uncorroborated and that his client denies wrongdoing.

“At the end of the day, he’s confident that he will be exonerated because he maintains that he has not done anything wrong,” Reed said.

Maher said her need for employment explains why she stayed on the job.

“I needed to earn a living, and I was 57. How many people are going to hire you at that age?” she said.

Conyers’ status as a leading Democrat deterred her from going public at the time, Maher said, adding she doesn’t have anything to lose now.

Deanna Maher in the late 1990s.

“I didn’t report the harassment because it was clear nobody wanted to take it seriously,” she said. “John Conyers is a powerful man in Washington, and nobody wanted to cross him.”

Former Detroit Free Press reporter Joel Thurtell said Monday that Maher told him about the alleged abuse at the time, but she didn’t want to go on the record.

“She told me about the sexual harassment claims, but at the time she didn’t feel confident she wouldn’t be hung out to dry and retaliated against,” said Thurtell, who left the Free Press in 2007 and runs a blog, “Joel on the Road.”

“So there was no way I could report it. I spoke with her last week, and she said she just didn’t feel comfortable at the time going on the record with the allegations.”

Maher also discussed the sexual harassment incidents with a Detroit News reporter in 2013 but didn’t want to go on the record.

In the second alleged incident in spring 1998, Maher said she was in the passenger seat while Conyers was driving to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and that he touched her.

“He was trying to feel me up with his right hand,” she said. “I kept pushing his hand away. Then he put his hand on my neck and started trying to tickle me. We were on I-75, and he was driving erratically. I was saved by the bell because we got pulled over by the police for the way he was driving.”

In 1999, at a meeting in Highland Park with ministers, Maher said Conyers “put his hand up my dress and whispered in my ear, ‘I didn’t know you had such great legs.’ ”

She said she reported to the House Ethics Committee and U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2001 an assault by a male employee of Conyers that occurred while the congressman was in a nearby room. The male employee grabbed her and forcibly kissed her and ended up sexually harassing her multiple times, Maher said.

The Ethics Committee had no comment on Monday.

Reed questioned Maher’s accounts.

“At best, they are uncorroborated. At worst, they’re just not believable. When you consider that they’re flying down I-75, he is driving and has time to do all of that, they get pulled over by a police officer, and she doesn’t tell him what’s going on?” he said.

“Any female or male that comes forward and says anybody harasses them, that is serious. Those things are not to be taken lightly. But we have to be able to at least have some corroboration if we’re going to be saying my client did something wrong.”

Accusations against Conyers first surfaced last week when Buzzfeed News reported on a 2015 settlement he reached with a former staffer for $27,000. Conyers confirmed he made the payments but denied firing her for refusing his sexual advances.

The site then 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.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, who represents the woman who filed the sexual harassment suit against Conyers in 2014, called on the Detroit congressman Monday to release her from a nondisclosure agreement “so that she may have a voice to tell her own story.”

Conyers’ attorney has also dismissed a Washington Post report about another woman, Melanie Sloan, whom Conyers hired in 1995 as minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. Sloan 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.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke with Sloan on Monday and said the behavior that she described was "unacceptable and disappointing."

"I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me. Ms. Sloan, as a respected ethics expert and attorney, also gave me valuable feedback into the substantive reforms many of us in Congress are advocating to foster a climate of respect and dignity, and to protect legislative branch employees," Pelosi said in a statement.

“I have not had the opportunity to speak with the other women, one of whom cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place.  That ridiculous system must be ended and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so.”

Maher in 2003 was among staffers who reported Conyers to the Ethics Committee for allegedly forcing them to run personal errands and babysit his son. The ethics panel said in December 2006 that Conyers agreed to take steps to ensure it didn’t happen anymore.

She said she contacted the Ethics Committee again in 2011 on a behalf of a colleague from Conyers’ office who told her about similar behavior. The Ethics Committee wouldn’t comment Monday on it.

“As you know, Conyers received nothing more than a ‘rap on his knuckles’ from Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, for not having ‘clarity’ in his instructions/order to staff to perform illegal/unethical duties,” Maher wrote to the Ethics Committee in a 2011 email — a copy of which she provided to The News.

“He was very clear always when giving orders: If you want your job, do as I say,” Maher wrote.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.