Update: Conyers has told The Associated Press that he hasn’t settled any sexual harassment complaints with any staff members. Conyers, who answered the door at his Detroit home Tuesday morning, says he knows nothing about any claims of inappropriate touching and learned of the story just hours earlier. Referring to allegations of sexual harassment and assault being made against politicians and others, the veteran lawmaker says he’s “been looking at these things with amazement.”
Meanwhile, Paul Ryan - who Cernovich blamed for enabling Conyers’ settlement - called the settlement “extremely troubling” and vowed to continue reviewing House policy on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination,” Ryan said, outlining the recent steps the House has made to combat sexual misconduct in Congress.
As Talking Points Memo pointed out, last month the Committee on House Administration reviewed its procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination, and last week that committee issued a new policy requiring “mandatory training for all members and staff,” he said.
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Last week, we reported how Congress’s Office of Compliance paid out $17 million for 264 settlements with federal employees over 20 years for various violations, including sexual harassment – information that was brought to light by California Rep. Jackie Speier, who claimed that two men with a history of sexual harassment continued to serve in the House – one of whom was a Republican and one a Democrat.
Now, thanks to Buzzfeed News, the mystery Democrat has been identified as Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the ranking member on the powerful House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives. In 2014, a former Conyers staffer filed a complaint claiming she was fired for refusing his sexual advances, and that she had been subsequently blackballed from working with Congress.
The woman received a $30,000 settlement, which was paid out of Conyers’s taxpayer-funded office budget.
The woman who settled with Conyers launched the complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014, alleging she was fired for refusing his sexual advances, and ended up facing a daunting process that ended with a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of more than $27,000. Her settlement, however, came from Conyers’ office budget rather than the designated fund for settlements.
Congress has no human resources department. Instead, congressional employees have 180 days to report a sexual harassment incident to the Office of Compliance, which then leads to a lengthy process that involves counseling and mediation, and requires the signing of a confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward.
After this an employee can choose to take the matter to federal district court, but another avenue is available: an administrative hearing, after which a negotiation and settlement may follow.
A law clerk who represented the woman, who was not named by Buzzfeed and has never come forward with her story, said the settlement process was like “being abused twice” for the poor woman. In the settlement papers, other staffers in Conyers’ office discuss acting as couriers who transported women with who Conyers was allegedly having affairs.
The process was “disgusting,” said Matthew Peterson, who worked as a law clerk representing the complainant, and who listed as a signatory to some of the documents.
“It is a designed cover-up,” said Peterson, who declined to discuss details of the case but agreed to characterize it in general terms. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
Other lawyers named as representing the accuser could not be reached for comment. The Office of Compliance did not confirm or deny that it had dealt with the case.
The documents were first provided to BuzzFeed News by Mike Cernovich, who said he gave the documents to BuzzFeed News for vetting and further reporting, and because he said if he published them himself, Democrats and congressional leaders would “try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger.” He provided them without conditions. BuzzFeed News independently confirmed the authenticity of the documents with four people directly involved with the case, including the accuser.
In a series of tweets published last night, Cernovich explained why he leaked the story to Buzzfeed, and also blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan for covering up Conyers’ harassment.
In her wrongful dismissal complaint, the former employee said Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors and often asked her to join him in a hotel room. On one occasion, she alleges that Conyers asked her to work out of his room for the evening, but when she arrived the congressman started talking about his sexual desires. She alleged he then told her she needed to “touch it,” in reference to his penis, or find him a woman who would meet his sexual demands.
As Buzzfeed pointed out, Congress has no human resources department. Instead, congressional employees have 180 days to report a sexual harassment incident to the Office of Compliance, which then leads to a lengthy process that involves counseling and mediation, and requires the signing of a confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward. After this, the complainant can choose to either pursue the matter in federal district court or seek a settlement through an administrative hearing.
In the complaint, which is available in full below, the woman alleges that Conyers sexually harassed her by asking her to touch his penis, or find another woman who would meet his sexual demands. Conyers also made her work nights, weekends and holidays on occasion to “keep him company.”
In her complaint, the former employee said Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors and often asked her to join him in a hotel room. On one occasion, she alleges that Conyers asked her to work out of his room for the evening, but when she arrived the congressman started talking about his sexual desires. She alleged he then told her she needed to “touch it,” in reference to his penis, or find him a woman who would meet his sexual demands. She alleged Conyers made her work nights, evenings, and holidays to keep him company.
In another incident, the former employee alleged the congressman insisted she stay in his room while they traveled together for a fundraising event. When she told him that she would not stay with him, she alleged he told her to “just cuddle up with me and caress me before you go.”
“Rep. Conyers strongly postulated that the performing of personal service or favors would be looked upon favorably and lead to salary increases or promotions,” the former employee said in the documents.
Three other staff members provided affidavits submitted to the Office Of Compliance that outlined a pattern of behavior from Conyers that included touching the woman in a sexual manner and growing angry when she brought her husband around.
One affidavit from a former female employee states that she was tasked with flying in women for the congressman. “One of my duties while working for Rep. Conyers was to keep a list of women that I assumed he was having affairs with and call them at his request and, if necessary, have them flown in using Congressional resources,” said her affidavit. (A second staffer alleged in an interview that Conyers used taxpayer resources to fly women to him.)
One male employee who corroborated the victim’s claims in an affidavit said he witnessed Conyers touch his staffers in an inappropriate, sexual manner. The women in his office said it was widely known that Conyers had sexual relationships with his staff, something the women felt undermined their credibility.
The employee said in her affidavit that Conyers also made sexual advances toward her: “I was driving the Congressman in my personal car and was resting my hand on the stick shift. Rep. Conyers reached over and began to caress my hand in a sexual manner.”
The woman said she told Conyers she was married and not interested in pursuing a sexual relationship, according to the affidavit. She said she was told many times by constituents that it was well-known that Conyers had sexual relationships with his staff, and said she and other female staffers felt this undermined their credibility.
“I am personally aware of several women who have experienced the same or similar sexual advances made towards them by Rep[.] John Conyers,” she said in her affidavit.
A male employee wrote that he witnessed Rep. Conyers rub the legs and other body parts of the complainant “in what appeared to be a sexual manner” and saw the congressman rub and touch other women “in an inappropriate manner.” The employee said he confronted Conyers about this behavior.
“Rep. Conyers said he needed to be ‘more careful’ because bad publicity would not be helpful as he runs for re-election. He ended the conversation with me by saying he would ‘work on’ his behavior,” the male staffer said in his affidavit.
One reason Conyers’ staffers tolerated his behavior, as Buzzfeed points out, was the Congressman’s status as a civil rights icon, something his staffers believed insulated him from criticism. He is also incredibly popular among his constituents in Detroit.
Conyers is a civil rights icon. He was lauded by Martin Luther King Jr. and is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Your story won’t do shit to him,” said the staffer. “He’s untouchable.”
Representatives for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Speaker John Boehner said both lawmakers were unaware of the settlements because of the confidentiality agreements. Paul Ryan’s office didn’t return Buzzfeed’s request for comment.
To help rectify Congress’s broken system, Rep. Speier has introduced legislation to overhaul the complaint process, including requiring the Office of Compliance to publicly name the office of any member who enters into a settlement. The bill would also allow complainants to waive mediation and counseling, set up a victims’ counsel, and require all congressional offices to go through harassment training every year.
In the meantime, we imagine this won’t be the last bombshell disclosure implicating a high-ranking member of Congress. Indeed, if recent trends are any guide, it’s only a matter of time, we believe, before the Republican whom Speiers alluded to is unmasked.
Read the complaint in its entirety below: