Rep. John Conyers revises his response to sexual harassment complaints

Last Updated Nov 21, 2017 6:58 PM EST

WASHINGTON — Michigan Rep. John Conyers settled a complaint in 2015 from a woman who alleged she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances, BuzzFeed News reported.

The website reported Monday that Conyers' office paid the woman over $27,000 to settle the complaint under a confidentiality agreement. Conyers, who answered the door at his Detroit home Tuesday morning, said 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 said he's "been looking at these things with amazement."

On Tuesday, Buzzfeed reported that another woman who worked for Conyers said she faced "daily" harassment, in a lawsuit she abandoned when the court denied her request to keep it sealed. In that lawsuit, Buzfeed says, the woman also said Conyers' wife, Monica Conyers, accused the woman of wanting to have an affair with her husband. 

Before the second allegation emerged, Conyers released a longer statement, with a spokesperson saying Conyers was under the impression an Associated Press reporter was asking him about recent allegations of which he was unaware and denied. Conyers said his office "resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability – in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation."

"I have long been and continue to be a fierce advocate for equality in the workplace and I fully support the rights of employees who believe they have been harassed or discriminated against to assert claims against their employers," Conyers said. 

The statement continued:

"That said, it is important to recognize that the mere making of an allegation does not mean it is true. The process must be fair to both the employee and the accused. The current media environment is bringing a much-needed focus to the important issue of preventing harassment in workplaces across the country. However, equally important to keep in mind in this particular moment is the principle of due process and that those accused of wrongdoing are presumed innocent unless and until an investigation establishes otherwise. In our country, we strive to honor this fundamental principle that all are entitled to due process. In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so. 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. The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment. There are statutory requirements of confidentiality that apply to both the employee and me regarding this matter. To the extent the House determines to look further at these issues, I will fully cooperate with an investigation."

Conyers' Democratic colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee swiftly called for ethics investigations, and the House Ethics Committee announced Tuesday afternoon that it is opening an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against him. 

"The allegations against Ranking Member Conyers are extremely serious and deeply troubling," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the committee's second-most-senior Democrat said. "Obviously, these allegations must be investigated promptly by the Ethics Committee. There can be no tolerance for behavior that subjects women to the kind of conduct alleged. We also must support efforts to reform the way the House of Representatives handles these matters to make the process easier and more supportive of victims, as well as more transparent."

"The reports about Congressman Conyers are as serious as they get," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, said. "The Committee on Ethics should take up this matter immediately with a goal of promptly assessing the validity of the news account. This reported behavior cannot be tolerated in the House of Representatives or anywhere else."

BuzzFeed published affidavits from former staff members who said they had witnessed Conyers touching female staffers inappropriately —rubbing their legs and backs — or requesting sexual favors. One former staffer said one of her duties 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."

BuzzFeed said it received the documents from right-wing activist Mike Cernovich, but independently confirmed their authenticity. Cernovich said he gave the documents to BuzzFeed News because Democrats would "try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger" if he published them himself.

The 88-year-old Conyers is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving current member of the House. Calls to Conyers and his office seeking comment were not immediately returned Monday night.

The government has paid more than $17 million in taxpayer money over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes and other workplace violations filed by employees of Congress. The Office of Compliance released the numbers amid a wave of revelations of sexual misconduct in the worlds of entertainment, business and politics that made its way to Capitol Hill last week. Two female lawmakers described incidents of sexual harassment, one in explicit detail, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken apologized to a woman who said he forcibly kissed her and groped her during a 2006 USO tour.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday she was unaware of the settlement by Conyers. "The current process includes the signing of non-disclosure agreements by the parties involved," Pelosi said in a statement. "Congresswoman Jackie Speier has introduced legislation that will provide much-needed transparency on these agreements and make other critical reforms. I strongly support her efforts."

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said in a statement Tuesday, "This report is extremely troubling. Last month, I directed the Committee on House Administration to conduct a full review of all policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination. A Committee hearing last week examining this issue led to a new policy of mandatory training for all members and staff. Additional reforms to the system are under consideration as the committee continues its review. People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination."

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) released a statement regarding the allegations against Conyers and his subsequent response:

"The Congressional Black Caucus' (CBC) position on sexual harassment and sexual assault is clear: no matter the perpetrator, no matter the victim, those responsible for sexual harassment and/or sexual assault must be held accountable."