Editorial: End secret settlements

The Detroit News

Voters who went to the polls in 2016 to decide whether to return John Conyers to a 27th term in Congress lacked a critical piece of information about their representative. They didn’t know the Detroit Democrat had used taxpayer dollars the year before to silence a staffer who claimed he attempted to coerce her into a sexual relationship in exchange for keeping her job.

Documents leaked to the Buzzfeed website this week indicate Conyers paid $27,000 from his office account to make a private settlement with the woman, who alleged she was fired for rebuffing the congressman’s sexual advances.

The settlement was sealed, a practice common in complaints filed by congressional staffers against members.

Three other ex-staffers signed affidavits asserting Conyers repeatedly made demands for sex from his female employees, asked them to transport other women to his office for the purpose of illicit relationships, and touched women inappropriately in their presence.

Conyers is the ranking member of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, the longest current member of Congress, and among the loudest congressional critics of the Trump administration.

He has a history of ethical issues involving his staff. In 2006, he was investigated by the House Ethics Committee after staffers complained he demanded they babysit his two sons. Conyers was married at the time to former Detroit Councilwoman Monica Conyers.

Last Summer, Conyers was again the subject of an ethics committee probe for continuing to pay a female staffer after she left his employment. It’s not clear whether that was the same woman who received the $27,000 payoff.

Conyers merits the same scrutiny now being given to his fellow Democrat, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who is accused of groping and forcibly kissing a woman in an incident that occurred before the former comedian came to the Senate.

The accusation that Conyers made this go away with taxpayer dollars is perhaps more serious because he was an active member of Congress at the time, and the staffer alleged she was fired for rejecting his advancements. If true, that is a clear case of sexual harassment.

More disturbing is that Conyers is apparently among several congressmen who were allowed to keep their transgressions secret by obtaining confidentiality agreements as part of the settlement.

Over the past 20 years, the federal Office of Compliance has paid out $17 million to settle 268 complaints filed by congressional staffers. Those settlements were all sealed, meaning the details of the allegations and which Congress members were involved are held secret.

That’s an abuse of public trust. Whenever taxpayer dollars are spent, the public has a right to know who’s getting the money and why.

Congress should not be allowed to use public resources to protect its own. Voters should be well aware of their shenanigans before they go to the polls.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, has introduced legislation to unseal the settlements and block any future secret payouts

Congress should pass the bill and hold its members to the same standards it demands of the private sector.