Conyers accuser wants overhaul of harassment policies

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — One of the women who say former Rep. John Conyers Jr. sexually harassed her is pressing Congress to change its burdensome internal process for filing and settling harassment complaints from congressional staffers.

Detroit resident Marion Brown, who worked for Conyers in his district offices for 11 years, went through that process when she filed a complaint against the congressman in 2014 for wrongful termination, claiming he fired her for refusing his sexual advances.

The process took a year and a half between when Brown filed her complaint and when she was paid $27,000 through a settlement with Conyers that required she sign a “one-sided” confidentiality agreement, she said. There was no investigation of her claim, as there would have been in the private sector, her lawyer said.

She and her lawyer, Lisa Bloom, traveled to Washington at their own expense to meet with members of Congress, including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, who has introduced the legislation to overhaul the system for handling harassment claims from employees on Capitol Hill.

“There’s agreement that there needs to be change,” Brown said after her meetings with lawmakers Tuesday. “They were very interested and really trying to find solutions and welcomed input from me, which I thought was significant.”

“My main goal and desire is to affect change, so this doesn’t happen to others,” she added.

Conyers' lawyer tweeted a response Tuesday.

“Conyers accuser and Harvey Weinstein’s  #lawyer in search of 5 more minutes of fame fly to #WashingtonDC. Both have 0 credibility. Next Harvey's lawyer will claim she was harassed by Conyers,” Arnold Reed tweeted late Tuesday, referring to Bloom, who had represented the Hollywood mogul against claims of sexual harassment.

Conyers, 88, resigned last week amid allegations that he harassed several former female aides. He has denied their claims.

Brown called his decision “cowardly,” after the congressman demanded due process through an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

“He’d been saying he wanted due process. I wanted due process, as well. I was looking forward to going before the Ethics Committee,” Brown said. “But I think he knew there might be other people coming out.”

Bloom said they had four witnesses to corroborate Brown’s story, three of whom would have discussed their own experiences being harassed by Conyers, if subpoenaed by the ethics panel.

But the committee is widely expected to conclude its probe of Conyers now that he’s resigned. Its jurisdiction doesn’t cover former members of the U.S. House.

“I get accused by some of purposely — like my goal was to take down this ‘icon.’ Of course, it wasn’t,” said Brown, who never called on Conyers to step down.

She went on national television late last month, breaking her confidentiality agreement.

Brown has said the congressman touched her inappropriately and propositioned her over the years that she worked for him. In one incident, Conyers invited her to a hotel room in Chicago to discuss “business” but was in his underwear when she arrived, she says.

Calls for Conyers’ departure intensified as Brown and other accusers went public. Brown’s appearance on the “Today Show” prompted House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, to call for Conyers’ immediate resignation.

Reed has called Brown an “opportunist” and questioned her credibility, asking why she continued to work for Conyers for years after the alleged incidents.

“Harassment that was so bad, that was so pervasive that it caused her mental problems and mental issues, and she stayed on for 11 years? Eleven years?” Reed said at a news conference earlier this month. “She had an opportunity 15 years ago to come out and she didn’t.”

Brown has said she continued to work for Conyers in part because she believed in the mission of the office and was concerned about finding another job late in her career.

She was “blackballed” after filing the complaint against Conyers and couldn’t find another job in politics, she said. She is now working part time in another industry.

She spoke out because Conyers was calling her a liar, but it’s come at a cost, she said. She’s experienced a backlash in the community from his supporters.

“I still have to live in Detroit. That’s why I wanted to come out and speak. I’m not a liar. This did just happen. And I know people who are still working in the office and have been harassed. But I don’t criticize them. I understand why they don’t want to come out,” she said.

“... I can be that voice for them. I weighed the risk, and it was worth it to me. I have a granddaughter and another grandchild on the way. When they enter the work force, I don’t want them to go through that. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than the congressman.”

That’s part of the reason Brown and Bloom are lobbying Congress to incorporate transparency and speed in the process for resolving harassment claims, they said.

They want a fairer system, one that includes an advocate for the victim and access to an attorney.

Brown went through eight attorneys before she found one willing to represent her in the House proceedings 2014, a reluctance she attributes in part to Conyers’ high profile in Washington and Detroit.

She and Bloom met Tuesday with Reps. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, and Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, and about two dozen staffers for the House Administration Committee, which is drafting reforms.

“We talked about the importance of me being able to know that I had someone to go to who would be unbiased and could help me through the situation,” Brown said.