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Rep. John Conyers’s confusing, water-muddying denial of sexual harassment

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in 2015. (Andrew Harnik for The Washington Post)

A second sitting member of Congress in two weeks has been accused of sexual harassment.

BuzzFeed reported Monday night that Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances to female staffers and that he settled with one former staffer who accused him of sexual harassment.

Conyers confirmed that the settlement took place. But in a lengthy and legalistic statement, he stressed that the settlement is not an admission of fault and did not admit any wrongdoing.
There's been a lot of attention lately on how men respond to sexual harassment allegations against them, and Conyers's response is particularly confusing. Let's break it down, bit by it:

“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 denies what his accusers allege, but his entire statement has common threads with those of men who have “apologized”: Their statements are largely focused on themselves. Right off the bat, Conyers is offering a lot of “I” statements, suggesting that he feels the need to defend his character.

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“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.”

This language echoes something entirely different: The White House's defense of GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore. “Like most Americans the president believes we cannot allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person’s life,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

“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.”

It's not clear what Conyers is suggesting here. Is he suggesting that the media isn't being fair to him? Cautioning his supporters (or opponents) from jumping to conclusions? It's worth noting that BuzzFeed said Conyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday before the story published. He issued this statement defending himself hours afterward.

This is also one of the most legalistic sections of Conyers's statement, so I pinged Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz. Chafetz said he was struck by Conyers's use of legal phrases normally reserved for when someone is on trial for a crime. (Conyers's top Democratic colleagues have requested, and he has agreed to cooperate with, an ethics investigation by the House.)

Chafetz: “The language about 'due process' and 'presumption of innocence' is pretty beside the point, since the question now isn’t about criminal penalties or even civil liability but rather about whether he should stay in office. It’s a way of saying, 'Don’t pressure me to resign now, let’s wait and see what happens.'”

“In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so.”

Conyers spent 142 words and nearly half his statement cautioning people not to assume that his accusers are right before getting to the headline of his statement: He denies that he made sexual advances against women on his staff.

This statement is in the past tense, suggesting that Conyers wants us to know that in the moment, when these allegations were being raised in his office and well before they became public Monday, he denied them.

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“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.”

Okay, here's another legalistic part of the statement. Chafetz said Conyers is basically saying: “Settling is often cheaper and easier than fighting a lawsuit, even if the defendant had done nothing wrong, and that the settlement therefore should not be taken as an admission of wrongdoing.”

Technically that is true. Conyers settled and did not admit fault.

But that narrative is definitely lost on some of Conyers's Democratic colleagues. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 House Democrat, said the allegations are “very disturbing.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (Mich.), Conyers's colleague in the Michigan delegation, used the same kind of language: “Sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable.”

They, plus House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others, urged an ethics investigation that could have the authority to kick Conyers out of office. Conyers said he'll cooperate with an investigation if one takes place.

“The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”

Translated: Don't read too much into this settlement. I paid her as much as if we fired her for legitimate reasons. (Again: The woman claims she was fired for rejecting his sexual advances.)

But there could be a problem with the payment existing at all, some advocates say. BuzzFeed reports — and Conyers has not denied — that the payment for the settlement came from his office's account.

As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — an advocate for reforming the system for settling discrimination accusations against members of Congress — said in a statement, it's remarkable that members of Congress can make any kind of settlement with taxpayer money, let alone their office budgets. It's an open question, Speier said, “whether some members are using their tax payer-funded office budgets to make settlements under the guise of severance payments.”

 “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.”

Translation: The law prohibits me from talking about this unless it's in the context of an ethics investigation — assuming you want to even launch one, fellow members of Congress.