Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the House of Representatives’ longest-serving member, settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who was allegedly fired for turning down his “sexual advances,” according to a report from BuzzFeed News. Conyers on Tuesday denied the allegations.
Paul McLeod and Lissandra Villa reported on Monday evening that Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, paid a former female staffer $27,000 after she launched a complaint against him in 2014. Documents reviewed by the outlet, including four signed affidavits, reveal allegations from former staff members that the 88-year-old Congress member repeatedly made sexual advances to women in his professional orbit.
Conyers told the Associated Press on Tuesday after reporters knocked on the door of his Detroit home that he hasn’t settled any sexual harassment complaints with any staff members and knows nothing about them.
The Conyers allegations are the latest in a string of reports of sexual misconduct and harassment by public figures, including Washington lawmakers, since allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were publicized in October.
On Monday alone, the same day BuzzFeed’s Conyers story was published, Vox reported allegations of inappropriate behavior toward young reporters by New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, and the Washington Post published the stories of eight women alleging unwelcome sexual advances by television talk show host Charlie Rose. A second woman alleged sexual misconduct against Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and Leigh Corfman, who accused Alabama Republican Senate candidate Moore of initiating a sexual encounter with her when she was just 14, appeared on Today.
Referring to allegations of sexual harassment and assault being made against politicians and others, Conyers told the AP he has “been looking at these things with amazement.”
According to BuzzFeed’s reporting, Conyers asked female staff for sexual favors, requested they contact and transport other women with whom they believed he was having affairs, and made sexually suggestive physical contact. The victim with whom Conyers reached a settlement alleged he asked her for sexual favors and made her work extra hours to keep him company. Three other staff members provided affidavits to the Office of Compliance outlining a pattern of misbehavior.
Beyond Conyers, Congress has a sexual harassment claims problem that needs fixing
Beyond the disturbing nature of the allegations themselves, the Conyers case calls attention to a broader matter: the convoluted, closed process with which sexual harassment allegations are handled on Capitol Hill.
Congress has no human resources department and instead handles sexual harassment claims through the US Congress Office of Compliance. Victims are given 180 days to report an incident to the office, after which a lengthy process of counseling, mediation, and mandatory waiting periods ensue. Victims are also required to sign a confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward.
The Washington Post reported last week that the Office of Compliance paid out $17 million in taxpayer money for 264 settlements with federal employees over two decades for various violations, including sexual harassment.
Payment to Conyers’s alleged victim, however, came from his office’s budget. BuzzFeed explains:
Mike Cernovich, the men’s rights figure and pro-Trump activist who helped propagate the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, first provided the Conyers documents to BuzzFeed because he believed if he published them himself they would be discredited.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told BuzzFeed she was not aware of Conyers’s settlement, in which he didn’t admit fault. BuzzFeed’s Kate Nocera said in a tweet on Tuesday morning that a spokesperson for former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who resigned in 2015, said he was not aware of the Conyers settlement, either.
Both Houses of Congress this month moved to make sexual harassment training mandatory for lawmakers, staff, and employees. Still, many say lawmakers have a long way to go in addressing sexual harassment, including the process through which victims are able to make claims.
“We have a system in place that allows for the harasser to go unchecked,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who has been a vocal advocate for sexual harassment victims, said in a Sunday interview on Face the Nation.
Speier, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and other lawmakers last week introduced the ME TOO Act, legislation to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Congress.
“We have to make sure that a complaint is taken seriously. And the person who is the victim is not somehow tortured or intimidated into not filing the complaint,” Speier said on Sunday. “That’s what it is right now in Congress.”
Update: This article has been updated to reflect Conyers’s denials.