The House Ethics Committee announced Tuesday it has opened an investigation into allegations against Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan after reports being made public this week that he settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 after allegedly sexually harassing a staffer, according to an explosive report published Monday.
For his part, Conyers has said he is “expressly and vehemently” denying any wrongdoing.
“In our country, we strive to honor this fundamental principle that all are entitled to due process,” Conyers said in a statement. “In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so.”
In a joint statement Tuesday, Reps. Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, said that the committee is aware of “public allegations that Representative John Conyers, Jr. may have engaged in sexual harassment of members of his staff, discriminated against certain staff on the basis of age and used official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”
BuzzFeed News obtained documents, which include four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former aides who allege that Conyers made sexual advances to female staff in his office. The repeated requests from Conyers, according to BuzzFeed, included sexual favors, inappropriate touching and transporting women who were believed to be having affairs with the congressman.
BuzzFeed posted the documents online. CNN has not independently confirmed the allegations, or authenticated the documents.
Conyers’ former staffer, whose name is not revealed by BuzzFeed, filed the complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014, which was set up in the 1990s to handle workplace disputes on Capitol Hill. The unnamed woman alleged that Conyers fired her for not accepting his sexual advances, which led to her more than $27,000 settlement.
Conyers, who is the longest-serving active member of the House of Representatives, did not dispute the existence of settlement or payment, saying, “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.”
Notable in BuzzFeed’s reporting is that unlike other complaints that are settled through the OOC process, the payout for this particular settlement was paid out from Conyers’ congressional office budget, instead of the US Treasury fund set up for this purpose.
CNN reported last week that just two members of Congress are typically responsible for signing off on such settlement payouts — the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee. It’s unclear what role, if any, the committee played in the Conyers settlement. In the settlement, Conyers did not admit any fault.
The process was “disgusting,” Matthew Peterson, who was the law clerk representing the complainant, told BuzzFeed.
“It is a designed cover-up,” Peterson said. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
In the documents, the former staffer alleges Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors, as well as asked her to join him in a hotel room.
She specifically referenced one occasion when she was asked by Conyers to work out of his room, but when she arrived, he started “talking about his sexual desires,” according to BuzzFeed. She said he then told her she needed to “touch it,” referencing his penis, or find him a woman who would.
“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 staffer said in the documents.
House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement Tuesday morning saying he read a report of a sexual harassment claim against a member of the House of Representatives, but didn’t specifically cite the BuzzFeed report. An aide later confirmed to CNN the statement was in regards to Conyers.
“This report is extremely troubling,” he said in a statement. “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 … People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination.”
House Democratic Leader Nany Pelosi told BuzzFeed she was unaware of the settlement. A spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner told CNN that Boehner was “not aware” of the Conyers settlement “until Buzzfeed inquired about it” Monday. The Boehner spokesman also tells CNN that “the Speaker’s office was not given access to” any OOC settlements during Boehner’s time as Speaker. CNN has reached out to Pelosi for comment.
BuzzFeed acquired the documents from Mike Cernovich, a blogger who surfaced on the political scene last year as a staunch supporter of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He gained notoriety as an online troll who peddled conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, among other things, frequently drawing ire from both conservatives and liberals alike for making inflammatory comments on a host of issues.
BuzzFeed News reported it independently verified the documents provided by Cernovich.
Last week, the Office of Compliance released additional information indicating that it has paid more than $17 million in settlements since 1997. That includes all settlements, not just related to sexual harassment, but also discrimination and other cases.
An OOC spokeswoman said the office was releasing the extra data “due to the interest in the awards and settlement figures.” The OOC has come under fire in recent days for what lawmakers and Hill aides alike say are its antiquated policies that do not adequately protect victims who file complaints.