- Rep. John Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who said she was fired after she refused his sexual advances, BuzzFeed News reported Monday.
- Conyers’ office reportedly paid the woman $27,000 in a settlement that included a confidentiality agreement.
- Conyers “vehemently denied” the allegations made in the report and agreed to an Ethics Committee investigation, which was launched Tuesday.
The House Ethics Committee on Tuesday said it has begun an investigation into sexual harassment claims against Democratic Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives.
Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who said she was fired after she refused Conyers’ sexual advances, BuzzFeed News reported Monday.
Conyers’ office reportedly paid the woman $27,000 in a settlement that included a confidentiality agreement. BuzzFeed published four signed affidavits from former employees who said they had witnessed the congressman touch female aides inappropriately and request sexual favors.
“I was basically blackballed. There was nowhere I could go,” the woman, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told BuzzFeed.
One other former staffer wrote in an affidavit that she had faced sexual advances from Conyers and alleged that she knew of others who experienced “the same or similar” treatment by the congressman.
Conyers, a civil rights icon and ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, originally denied that he settled any sexual harassment complaints and said that he knew nothing of the claims until he read BuzzFeed’s report on Tuesday morning, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday morning.
But later on Tuesday, Conyers’ spokesperson said that the congressman was confused by the AP’s questioning on Tuesday morning and thought the reporter was asking about “recent allegations of which he was unaware of and denied.”
The 88-year-old congressman released a statement responding to BuzzFeed’s report in which he acknowledged the settlement, but denied the accusations made against him.
“I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so,” Conyers said. “My office resolved the allegations – with an express denial of liability – in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative.”
Conyers added that the payment made in the settlement was “not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said that she was previously unaware of Conyers’ settlement, and called for an ethics investigation into the allegations.
“As Members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives and to ensure a climate of dignity and respect, with zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse,” Pelosi said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. “As I have said before, any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the second most powerful Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, also called for an ethics investigation into Conyers.
“The allegations against Ranking Member Conyers are extremely serious and deeply troubling,” Nadler said in a statement. “Obviously, these allegations must be investigated and promptly by the Ethics Committee. There can be no tolerance for behavior that subjects women to the kind of conduct alleged.”
Conyers said in his statement that he is willing to cooperate with an investigation.
BuzzFeed disclosed that it received the affidavits and other documents from right-wing activist and media personality Mike Cernovich, but independently verified their authenticity.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the allegations “deeply troubling” in a Tuesday morning statement.
Congress’s Office of Compliance, which handles sexual misconduct complaints, has paid $17 million in 264 settlements with federal employees over the past 20 years for violations including sexual harassment, The Washington Post reported last week.
Legislators call for reform
Lawmakers – including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat; Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat; and Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican – have become outspoken advocates of reforming Congress’ system for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints.
They argue that the current process, which involves a mandatory nondisclosure agreement, 30 days of counseling, 30 days of mediation between the accuser and the accused, and a 30-day “cooling off period” before the complaint is formalized, discourages victims from coming forward and unfairly protects perpetrators.
“The present system may have been okay in the dark ages,” Speier said during a congressional hearing earlier this month. “It is not appropriate for the 21st century.”
Speier recently sponsored the Me Too Congress Act, which would reform the House’s sexual harassment policies.