Black Caucus members urge Conyers to resign

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Several Congressional Black Caucus members urged longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers to resign on Tuesday amid an ethics probe into allegations that he sexually harassed former staffers.

At an evening meeting, leaders encouraged Conyers, who helped found the caucus, to step down in an effort to salvage his legacy, according to a Democratic source on the Hill.

Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, skipped votes in the House late Tuesday and was spotted on a Delta flight back to Detroit.

In a statement, Louisiana Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, chairman of the Black Caucus, did not publicly say Conyers should go. He said the decision to resign before the conclusion of the ethics investigation is “John’s decision to make.”

“Today, I met with John and we had a very candid conversation about the seriousness of the allegations against him, which he vehemently denies,” Richmond said in a statement.

“I told him that I agreed with his decision to step down as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee at this time. I also told him that I encourage and expect him to fully cooperate with the ethics investigation. He said he would.”

Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal became the second Democrat in Congress to publicly call on Conyers to resign.

“This is a watershed moment where, finally, the country seems to be waking up and realizing we need to have a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” said Jayapal, who represents the Seattle area.

“It is not easy for me to reach this conclusion because, as a civil rights activist, I have looked up to Rep. Conyers for decades. I believe these women, I see the pattern and there is only one conclusion — Rep. Conyers must resign.”

The growing pressure to resign came after The Detroit News reported Tuesday on the allegations of Deanna Maher, a former Conyers staffer who said the veteran Detroit Democrat sexually harassed her on three occasions, including inappropriate touching.

New York Rep. Kathleen Rice last week became the first House Democrat to call on Conyers to resign.

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

The Michigan Republican Party says Maher’s story should prompt Democratic politicians in Michigan to call for his resignation. None have.

“Deanna Maher’s story of sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful congressman is heartbreaking,” party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said.

“Her fear that there was no one she could turn to allowed Congressman Conyers to get away with these crimes and later, to strike again. How many more victims need to come forward before Debbie Stabenow, Nancy Pelosi, Gretchen Whitmer, Jocelyn Benson and the Michigan Democrats demand Conyers resignation?”

Conyers has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer has insisted the 88-year-old lawmaker will not resign amid an ethics probe into allegations that he sexual harassed staffers.

A top House Democratic leader on Tuesday said Conyers was right to step aside from the Judiciary Committee, but stopped short of saying Conyers should resign.

“In every one of these cases, we need to have adjudication and, if found culpable, then accountability needs to attach,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. “Of course, he’s stepped aside, which he should have done.”

The adjudicatory process through the House Ethics Committee needs to be “strengthened and accelerated,” Hoyer said, saying he hadn’t realized how “pervasive” sexual harassment has been in the halls and offices of Congress.

Maher said she did not report the behavior earlier because she thought no one would take it seriously considering Conyers’ high profile in Washington. Maher, who now lives in Holland, was also afraid that because of her age — 57 when at the time of the first alleged incident in 1997 — she wouldn’t find another job if she lost her position with Conyers.

“Women are not being protected as they should be, and they do not feel empowered to come forward. The threat of the loss of a job is a great threat, especially the older you get,” Hoyer said.

“We have to reform the system so the system is accommodating of those interests and protects those who feel threatened and assaulted.”

The House will vote Wednesday on legislation sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, to require training for members and their staffs on sexual and workplace harassment.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said his colleagues shouldn’t stop there, calling on Congress to end the practice of keeping secret the settlements between members of Congress and their accusers.

Asked whether Conyers should resign, Kildee said that’s a decision only Conyers can make in consultation with his constituents.

“I think it was appropriate that he stepped aside as ranking member and, as difficult as all of this is, I don’t think there’s any way to ignore the seriousness of these allegations. It pains me to have to say that, but it’s very serious,” Kildee said in an interview.

“Obviously, he’s going to have to examine his conscience and determine whether or not he can continue.”

Maher, who worked for Conyers from 1997 to 2005, told The Detroit News that he made unwanted advances toward her three times — the first 1997 when she rejected an offer from Conyers to stay in his Washington hotel room and have sex.

In the 1998 accusation, Maher said Conyers was driving them along Interstate 75. She rode in the passenger seat and Conyers was “trying to feel me up” and tickle her on her neck, causing him to drive erratically and be pulled over by the police.

The third occasion, at a 1999 meeting in Highland Park with ministers, Maher said Conyers put his hand up her dress.

Conyers’ attorney Arnold Reed has questioned why Maher would continue to work for the congressman for so many years after the alleged incidents, which he said are uncorroborated.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said sexual harassment is “always unacceptable.”

“This news is deeply disturbing and very serious and is even more reason for the House Ethics Committee to do a thorough investigation,” Stabenow said in a statement reacting to Maher’s story. “I also support a full review of congressional sexual harassment policies and actions to address this serious problem.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township said Maher had made “serious and credible allegations, and I believe the House Ethics Committee should complete their investigation into these charges as quickly as possible.”

“Congress should set a high standard of professional conduct, and it is imperative that we hold our colleagues accountable for misconduct or inappropriate behavior,” Peters added in a statement.

Maher is the second former Conyers staffer to go public with accusations about the 88-year-old Conyers, who has served in the U.S. House since 1965.

Conyers last week confirmed a 2015 settlement he reached with a former staffer for $27,000, as first reported by Buzzfeed News. Conyers acknowledged he made the payments from his office account but has denied sexually harassing the woman.

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.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California spoke with Sloan this week and said the behavior she described was “unacceptable and disappointing.”

Pelosi on Tuesday wrote to Ethics Committee leaders urging them to “fairly and swiftly” pursue investigations into any credible sexual harassment and discrimination allegations.