Many House Democrats have stopped short of calling for Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to resign in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him.
But the congressman’s hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, did not hold back, publishing an editorial online late Tuesday that urged the senior Democratic lawmaker to step down immediately.
Conyers’s alleged sexual harassment and use of taxpayer dollars to settle a claim “is the kind of behavior that can never be tolerated in a public official, much less an elected representative of the people,” the news outlet’s editorial board wrote.
“And it means that whatever Conyers’ legacy will eventually be, his tenure as a member of Congress must end — now.”
BuzzFeed News first reported allegations on Monday night that Conyers repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances to female staffers and that he settled with one former aide who claimed she was fired for rejecting his advances.
Conyers paid that former employee more than $27,000 from office funds after she accused him of harassment, listing the payments as employee severance, according to House payroll records compiled by LegiStorm, a subscription-based data source, The Post reported.
On Tuesday, Conyers confirmed the settlement but stressed that it was not an admission of fault.
“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 — to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative,” he stated.
The House Ethics Committee has launched a formal investigation into the allegations.
The Detroit Free Press described Conyers as “an undisputed hero of the civil rights movement” and “a steadfast voice for social justice and equality.” It recalled his crucial roles in voting rights, health care reform and the establishment of a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
For this reason, the editorial board wrote that it reached its conclusion with “an incredible amount of disappointment.”
Even if Conyers could prove that the sexual harassment allegations against him are false, “there’s no defense” for using money from his congressional office to bury a scandal, the editorial stated.
“It looks an awful lot like hush money,” the editorial board wrote. “And it’s a betrayal that breaches the most fundamental trust that exists between a public servant and the people that person represents.”
It noted that Conyers continues to fight a different ethics complaint alleging that he violated House rules by authorizing pay for a senior staff member when she was apparently not performing official work.
“John Conyers Jr. must go — after 53 years in Congress, after a stellar career of fighting for equality, after contributing so much to southeast Michigan and the nation,” the editorial stated. “It’s a tragic end to his public career. But it’s the appropriate consequence for the stunning subterfuge his office has indulged here, and a needed warning to other members of Congress that this can never be tolerated.”
The Detroit News — the city’s other major newspaper — did not call on Conyers to resign, but published an editorial calling for an end to secret settlements involving members of Congress. Those who voted for Conyers in 2016, the newspaper wrote, didn’t know that he had used taxpayer dollars the year before to “silence a staffer who claimed he attempted to coerce her into a sexual relationship in exchange for keeping her job.”
The Detroit News editorial called sealed settlements “an abuse of public trust.”
“Whenever taxpayer dollars are spent, the public has a right to know who’s getting the money and why,” the editorial said. “Congress should not be allowed to use public resources to protect its own. Voters should be well aware of their shenanigans before they go to the polls.”
Both editorials’ concerns echoed some of those expressed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Speier drew attention to evidence that Conyers dealt with the settlement by putting the accuser back on his payroll.
“Beyond the sexual harassment allegations are allegations that call into question the amount of money that is used to settle sexual harassment cases, and whether some Members are using their tax payer-funded office budgets to make settlements under the guise of severance payments,” Speier said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a growing list of other Democrats called for a formal ethics investigation into Conyers on Tuesday.
“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 statement Tuesday.
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