WASHINGTON — Beset by disturbing allegations of sexual harassment, U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit on Sunday morning stepped down as the ranking Democrat of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, leaving a spot the longtime civil rights legend and advocate for the poor and disadvantaged has treasured and battled to keep.
“After careful consideration and in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me, I have notified the Democratic leader of my request to step aside (as ranking member) during the investigation of these matters," Conyers said in a news release sent out about 12:30 p.m.
“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger," added Conyers. "I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics."
Conyers, 88, had been either the ranking Democrat or chairman of the Judiciary Committee since 1995 and had been the first and only African-American to hold that position. The committee oversees the Justice Department and the federal criminal code, among other areas of jurisdiction.
Announcement of his decision came as other Democrats began to suggest that Conyers take some action amid a swirl of accusations that he sexually and otherwise harassed women members of his staff and a House Ethics Committee investigation being launched into the allegations. Congress is set to return to Washington, D.C. after its Thanksgiving break on Tuesday.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Conyers deserved due process in consideration of the allegations but that she believed "he will do the right thing." Last week, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus that Conyers co-founded, called on him to step down as ranking member of the committee.
Also on Sunday, U.S. Rep. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., who is pushing changes to the current system under which Congress secretly handles sexual abuse claims against members — a process that includes confidentiality agreements and lengthy time periods that must pass before the accuser can move forward with a claim — said on ABC's "This Week" that Conyers should resign if the allegations are true.
Last week, the website Buzzfeed reported on allegations from four women who worked in Conyers' office that he made sexual advances to women, rubbed and touched them and made inappropriate remarks. Conyers has acknowledged settling a secret claim by one of those women for more than $27,000 in office funds but has explicitly denied harassing anyone, saying the payment was for a "severance period."
Buzzfeed said it received copies of the women's accusations and the complaint and settlement from a journalist often linked with the "alt-right" movement but that it contacted the women and verified them.
The Free Press on Thursday also reported that Melanie Sloan, a Washington lawyer who once worked for the Judiciary Committee staff under Conyers, felt she had been harassed and abused also by him, though never sexually. She said he ordered her to babysit on one occasion and, on another, showed up to a meeting with her in his office in only his underwear — though she said that was more of a matter of him feeling as he could do as he wished, not a sexual advance.
The allegations against Conyers come as allegations of sexual harassment have engulfed the entertainment, political and media worlds. In Congress, both Conyers and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. are facing investigations in the two chambers' separate Ethics Committee.
Ultimately, the Ethics Committee could do nothing, issue a letter rebuking Conyers, or take some other action, all the way up to recommending expulsion on a two-thirds vote of the House, though that happens exceedingly rarely — only five times in the U.S. House of Representatives' history.
In his statement Sunday, Conyers — who is the longest-serving active member of Congress, having been first elected in 1964 — said he plans to keep fighting
“To be clear, I would like very much to remain as ranking member," he said. "There is still much work to be done on core concerns like securing civil rights, enacting meaningful criminal justice reform, and protecting access to the ballot box.
“But I have come to believe that my presence as ranking member on the committee would not serve these efforts while the Ethics Committee investigation is pending. "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."
He also talked briefly in his statement about his legacy as a fighter for civil rights — he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and employed Rosa Parks and has a long history of pressing for criminal justice reform and equal rights. He said he would never allow it to be diminished, crediting his father, John Conyers Sr., who was a labor union organizer, as well as his sons and "my loving wife Monica and the extraordinary people of Detroit."
He urged colleagues to not judge the truth of the accusations too quickly, saying "basic fairness requires no less" than due process for him or any other member of Congress accused of harassment.
Pelosi — a longtime ally of Conyers — put out a statement noting his decision to step down as ranking member, saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences."
"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," she added. " I commend the brave women coming forward."
She also noted that House is expected to vote this week to require all members of the House and staff to undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. "Next," she added, "Congress must move swiftly to reform the Office of Compliance and the Congressional Accountability Act to put an end to the days of secret settlements paid for by taxpayer dollars."
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York — the next most-senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee — put out a statement as well, saying he would "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 said.
Contact Todd Spangler at 703-854-8947 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.
After careful consideration and in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me, I have notified the Democratic Leader of my request to step aside as Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee during the investigation of these matters.— John Conyers, Jr. (@RepJohnConyers) November 26, 2017
More to come.
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