Conyers’ exit closes doors for redress for accusers

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The resignation of longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers a week ago means that those who accused him of sexual misconduct likely won’t get to testify before Congress or get their day in court, legal experts say.

The sexual harassment accusations are from three to 20 years old, so the statute of limitations long ago expired under the Congressional Accountability Act, which covers employees of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House Ethics Committee also is widely expected to close its Conyers investigation, since its jurisdiction doesn’t extend to former members of the U.S. House. But legal experts said accusers can continue to speak out in an effort to reform congressional harassment review rules.

Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, resigned or “retired” last week after nearly 53 years in office, while vehemently denying the allegations made by former female aides. The 88-year-old former lawmaker said the accusations were “not true” and part of the “game of politics,” while adding that “I can’t explain where they came from.”

The lawyer for one of the women who accused Conyers of sexual harassment had said her client, Marion Brown, would testify before the ethics panel, but she has not heard back from committee staff.

“That’s unfortunate, because my client Marion Brown and the other women who signed affidavits with similar stories want to be heard,” said attorney Lisa Bloom, whose client in 2015 accepted about $27,000 in a confidential settlement that Conyers paid from his office budget while denying the allegations.

She and Brown will be in Washington on Tuesday to advocate for reforms “so that no congressional staffer with a harassment or discrimination claim will have to go through the ordeal Marion endured,” Bloom said.

Conyers’ attorney, Arnold Reed, questioned Brown’s credibility by saying people would “come forward saying these allegations are untrue.” Conyers told the Mildred Gaddis radio show there should be complete public disclosure of congressional harassment settlements “to reveal to all the citizens of the country of what the federal legislators are doing or not doing, and any cost that may have been incurred as a result of that.”

The Ethics Committee has, at times, kept open an investigation after a member stepped down. But those cases typically involved a broader issue, such as oversight of the House page program raised by the 2006 case of former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.

Another possibility that could extend the probe is if the panel were to uncover evidence that others were complicit in unethical activity related to Conyers, and those people still work for the House, said ethics expert Meredith McGehee, executive director and head of policy at the nonpartisan group Issue One.

“My expectation, given their record, would be is they would consider this a closed matter once Mr. Conyers was gone,” McGehee said of the Ethics Committee.

“Even if someone wanted to try to take him to court outside of this, as a civil matter, that would be hard to do given the way the Congressional Accountability Act is written.”

Ethics lawyer Melanie Sloan, who says Conyers verbally abused her when she worked for him in the mid-1990s, said she would be “shocked” if the Ethics Committee takes action at this point.

“Given all these allegations of sexual harassment (on Capitol Hill), they might feel the need to do something, but I don’t know what. The guy’s not there, so there’s no punishment to levy,” said Sloan, the former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“They don’t have jurisdiction, and they have enough problems from people still in office to deal with.”

Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota have indicated they will resign their seats. GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas paid $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim but has not resigned.

Sloan worked for Conyers as minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1995-98 when Conyers was the top Democrat. She said the congressman would yell and berate her, telling her she was “worthless.”

“He once pulled me out of a meeting with domestic violence advocates to scream at me, and it was so severe that one of the advocates came out to ask if I was OK,” she said.

“It was also just sexist. I put together a field hearing in New York, and he showed up with a toddler and made me leave the stage and go babysit the kid.”

In another instance, Sloan said he called her into his office in the Rayburn House Building, where Conyers was walking around in his underwear. She turned around and left.

She complained to House leadership, a women’s group and a reporter, but nothing happened, she said. Conyers’ lawyer Reed has denied Sloan’s allegations.

Sloan said more victims don’t step forward on Capitol Hill “because they are afraid they will never get another job. It’s a town that values loyalty above other things.”

Critics of the dispute-resolution system on Capitol Hill have focused in part on the 180-day window that Congress set for victims to complain to Office of Compliance, which is the internal office responsible for handling harassment and workplace claims from employees.

Bloomfield Hills attorney Deborah Gordon said Conyers accuser Brown approached her seeking representation in early 2014 with detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Conyers.

Gordon found Brown to be “very credible.” But she said she declined to take the case, in part because the 180-day statute of limitations had lapsed related to the incidents Brown described.

“In order to file a complaint for sexual harassment against a congressperson, it has to be done in 180 days. That’s short,” Gordon said. “For Ms. Brown, everything she had complained about was outside the 180 days.”

Those House staffers wishing to file a complaint with the Office of Compliance must go through up to 30 days of “counseling” on workplace rights and administrative procedures. To continue pursuing the matter, the victim is required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before undergoing “mediation” for another 30 days.

Finally, victims must wait out a 30-day “cooling-off period” before they may file a formal complaint.

Kathleen L. Bogas, a Metro Detroit lawyer who has handled more than one case under the Congressional Accountability Act, said it’s a “bad law” that discourages people who wish to make complaints and talk about what happened to them.

“I’m hoping it does get changed because it just protects congresspeople,” Bogas said.

“There’s no other law that says you make a complaint and then you have to wait 30 days to decide to go through with it. That’s ridiculous. All these barriers are put up in front of people, and it’s just shocking to me that we have such a system.”

Members of the House Administration Committee are drafting legislation to revamp the system, including having a counselor or victims counsel or ombudsman advocate for victims during the complaint process.

At a hearing last week, members also indicated they would like to prohibit the use of taxpayer money to pay for sexual harassment settlements as happened in the cases of Farenthold and Conyers.

Bogas said Conyers’ accusers do have one option left.

“They can speak out,” she said. “They don’t have any recourse at the courts but they have recourse with the public.”