WASHINGTON — Even while fiercely denying allegations of sexual harassment, Michigan Rep. John Conyers is giving up his leadership position as top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, acknowledging a congressional probe into his possible misconduct had become an unwelcome distraction.
The 88-year-old lawmaker indicated he would not resign from Congress and would keep fighting the allegations first made public a week ago that he sexually harassed female staff members.
“I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family,” Conyers said in a statement Sunday, pledging full cooperation with the House Ethics Committee. The longest-serving active member of Congress, Conyers is the only African-American to have held the position of chairman or ranking member on the Judiciary panel, which oversees a range of U.S. law enforcement issues from civil rights and impeachment of federal officials to sexual harassment.
“I cannot in good conscience allow these charges to undermine my colleagues in the Democratic Caucus, and my friends on both sides of the aisle in the Judiciary Committee and the House of Representatives,” Conyers said. He urged lawmakers to afford him “due process” before issuing a judgment.
His sudden announcement came as a scandal-weary Congress prepared to return from its Thanksgiving break, with increasing attention on the issue of sexual misconduct involving multiple men in entertainment, media and politics. Along with Conyers, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore also are the subject of accusations.
“We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual's legacy, it is not a license for harassment,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Sunday.
News website BuzzFeed reported last Monday that Conyers’ office paid a woman more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015 that she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances. BuzzFeed also 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.
The House Ethics Committee is reviewing the allegations of harassment and age discrimination as well as using “official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”
This week, the House will vote on requiring anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and their staffs. Pelosi said Sunday that Congress should also act “to put an end to the days of secret settlements paid for by taxpayer dollars,” similar to the one signed by Conyers.
The Senate has already approved a measure requiring all senators, staff and interns to be trained on preventing sexual harassment.
“We must ensure the Congress has a climate of dignity and respect with zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” Pelosi said.
Conyers, first elected to the House in 1964, made clear he would prefer to keep his Judiciary post but had come to realize he could not “in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me.”
At least one House Democrat, Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, has called on Conyers to resign from Congress. Two others, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairman of the largest group of congressional liberals, had said Conyers should at least step aside from his leadership role on the Judiciary panel.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who sponsored legislation to overhaul the system by which sexual complaints are made and settled on Capitol Hill, said Congress must show a greater commitment to addressing sexual misconduct. Last month, she shared her own story of being sexually assaulted by a high-level aide while she was a staffer.
“This is absolutely a priority that we must focus on in terms of fixing the system,” she said on ABC's “This Week.” ‘'We say zero tolerance, but I don't believe that we put our money where our mouths are."
Earlier Sunday, Pelosi had defended Conyers as an “icon” for women's rights and told NBC's “Meet the Press” that he will do the “right thing.”
“This is about going forward,” Pelosi said. “We also have to address it for every person, every workplace in the country, not just in the Congress of the United States. And that's very important. And a good deal of that would be done by the Judiciary Committee.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is the next most-senior Democrat on the committee.
“Even under these unfortunate circumstances, the important work of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee must move forward,” Nadler said. “I will do everything in my power to continue to press on the important issues facing our committee, including criminal justice reform, workplace equality, and holding the Trump administration accountable.”
“Ranking Member Conyers has a 50-year legacy of advancing the cause of justice, and my job moving forward is to continue that critical work,” he added.
On Sunday evening, a group of 12 female former Conyers staff members released a statement in support of the embattled congressman. The statement did not dispute any of the allegations against Conyers and supported the ethics investigation, but vouched for Conyers’ behavior and character.
“While we do not pass judgment on the specific allegations reported in the press or the women who brought them, our experiences with Mr. Conyers were quite different than the image of him being portrayed in the media,” the statement said. “Mr. Conyers was a gentleman and never behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner in our presence. He was respectful, valued our opinions, challenged our thinking, and treated us as professionals.”