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Tuesday, November 21, 2017
She Said A Powerful Congressman Harassed Her. Here’s Why You Didn’t Hear Her Story.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the House of
Representatives, settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former
employee who alleged she was fired because she would not “succumb to [his]
Documents from the complaint
obtained by BuzzFeed News include four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former staff members who allege that
Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee,
repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sexual
favors, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers
was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and
backs in public. Four people involved with the case verified the documents are
And the documents also reveal the
secret mechanism by which Congress has kept an unknown number of sexual
harassment allegations secret: a grinding, closely held process that left the
alleged victim feeling, she told BuzzFeed News, that she had no option other
than to stay quiet and accept a settlement offered to her.
“I was basically blackballed. There
was nowhere I could go,” she said in a phone interview. BuzzFeed News is
withholding the woman’s name at her request because she said she fears
Last week the Washington Post reported that Congress’s
Office of Compliance paid out $17 million for 264 settlements with federal
employees over 20 years for various violations, including sexual harassment.
The Conyers documents, however, give a glimpse into the inner workings of the
office, which has for decades concealed episodes of sexual abuse by powerful
The woman who settled with Conyers
launched the complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014, alleging she was
fired for refusing his sexual advances, and ended up facing a daunting process
that ended with a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of
more than $27,000. Her settlement, however, came from Conyers’ office budget
rather than the designated fund for settlements.
Congress has no human resources
department. Instead, congressional employees have 180 days to report a sexual
harassment incident to the Office of Compliance, which then leads to a lengthy
process that involves counseling and mediation, and requires the signing of a
confidentiality agreement before a complaint can go forward.
After this an employee can choose to
take the matter to federal district court, but another avenue is available: an
administrative hearing, after which a negotiation and settlement
Some members of Congress have raised
major concerns with the current system over the years, but the calls for an
overhaul have grown louder in the post-Weinstein era. Members have argued that
90 days is too long to make a person continue working in the same environment
with their harasser; that interns and fellows should be eligible to pursue
complaints through this process; and that it is unfair for a victim to have to
pay for legal representation while the office of the harasser is represented
for free by the House's counsel.
In this case, one of Conyers’ former
employees was offered a settlement, in exchange for her silence, that would be
paid out of Conyers’ taxpayer-funded office budget. His office would “rehire”
the woman as a “temporary employee” despite her being directed not to come into
the office or do any actual work, according to the document. The complainant
would receive a total payment of $27,111.75 over the three months, after which
point she would be removed from the payroll, according to the document.
The draft agreement viewed by BuzzFeed News was
unsigned, but congressional employment records match the timing and amounts
outlined in the document. The woman left the office and never went public with
The process was “disgusting,” said
Matthew Peterson, who worked as a law clerk representing the complainant, and
who listed as a signatory to some of the documents.
“It is a designed cover-up,” said
Peterson, who declined to discuss details of the case but agreed to
characterize it in general terms. “You feel like they were betrayed by their
government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
Other lawyers named as representing the accuser could
not be reached for comment. The Office of Compliance did not confirm or deny
that it had dealt with the case.
“Pursuant to the Congressional
Accountability Act, the OOC cannot comment on whether matters have or have not
been filed with the office,” Laura Cech, publications and outreach manager of
the Office of Compliance, told BuzzFeed News in an email when asked to comment
on this case.
Two staffers alleged in their signed
affidavits that Conyers used congressional resources to fly in women they
believed he was having affairs with. Another said she was tasked with driving
women to and from Conyers’ apartment and hotel rooms.
Rep. Conyers did not admit fault as
part of the settlement. His office did not respond to multiple requests for
comment on Monday.
The documents were first provided to
BuzzFeed News by Mike Cernovich, the men's rights figure turned pro-Trump media
activist who propagated a number of false conspiracy theories including the
“Pizzagate” conspiracy. Cernovich said he gave the documents to BuzzFeed News
for vetting and further reporting, and because he said if he published them
himself, Democrats and congressional leaders would “try to discredit the story
by attacking the messenger.” He provided them without conditions. BuzzFeed News
independently confirmed the authenticity of the documents with four people
directly involved with the case, including the accuser.
In her complaint, the former employee
said Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors and often asked her to join
him in a hotel room. On one occasion, she alleges that Conyers asked her to
work out of his room for the evening, but when she arrived the congressman
started talking about his sexual desires. She alleged he then told her she
needed to “touch it,” in reference to his penis, or find him a woman who would
meet his sexual demands.
She alleged Conyers made her work
nights, evenings, and holidays to keep him company.
In another incident, the former
employee alleged the congressman insisted she stay in his room while they
traveled together for a fundraising event. When she told him that she would not
stay with him, she alleged he told her to “just cuddle up with me and caress me
before you go.”
“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 employee said
in the documents.
Three other staff members provided
affidavits submitted to the Office Of Compliance that outlined a pattern of
behavior from Conyers that included touching the woman in a sexual manner and
growing angry when she brought her husband around.
One affidavit from a former female
employee states that she was tasked with flying in women for the congressman.
“One of my duties while working for Rep. Conyers was to keep a list of women
that I assumed he was having affairs with and call them at his request and, if
necessary, have them flown in using Congressional resources,” said her
affidavit. (A second staffer alleged in an interview that Conyers used taxpayer
resources to fly women to him.)
The employee said in her affidavit
that Conyers also made sexual advances toward her: “I was driving the
Congressman in my personal car and was resting my hand on the stick shift. Rep.
Conyers reached over and began to caress my hand in a sexual manner.”
The woman said she told Conyers she
was married and not interested in pursuing a sexual relationship, according to
the affidavit. She said she was told many times by constituents that it was
well-known that Conyers had sexual relationships with his staff, and said she
and other female staffers felt this undermined their credibility.
“I am personally aware of several
women who have experienced the same or similar sexual advances made towards
them by Rep[.] John Conyers,” she said in her affidavit.
A male employee wrote that he
witnessed Rep. Conyers rub the legs and other body parts of the complainant “in
what appeared to be a sexual manner” and saw the congressman rub and touch
other women “in an inappropriate manner.” The employee said he confronted
Conyers about this behavior.
“Rep. Conyers said he needed to be
‘more careful’ because bad publicity would not be helpful as he runs for
re-election. He ended the conversation with me by saying he would ‘work on’ his
behavior,” the male staffer said in his affidavit.
The male employee said that in 2011
Conyers complained a female staffer was “too old” and said he wanted to let her
go. The employee said he set up a meeting in December 2011 to discuss
“mistreatment of staff and his misuse of federal resources.” The affidavit says
that Conyers “agreed that he would work on making improvements as long as I
worked directly with him and stopped writing memos and emails about concerns.”
Another female employee also
attested that she witnessed Conyer’s advances, and said she was asked to
transport women to him. “I was asked on multiple occasions to pick up women and
bring them to Mr. Conyers['] apartment, hotel rooms, etc.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to several
former Conyers staffers, all of whom did not want to speak on the record. One
former staffer, who did not want to be named, said she was frustrated by the
secretive complaint process.
“I don’t think any allegations
should be buried...and that’s for anyone, not just for this particular office,
because it doesn’t really allow other people to see who these individuals are,”
said the former staffer. “When you make private settlements, it doesn’t warn
the next woman or the next person going into that situation.”
Another staffer said Conyers’
reputation made people fearful to speak out against him. Aside from being the
longest-serving House member and the ranking member of a powerful committee,
Conyers is a civil rights icon. He was lauded by Martin Luther King Jr. and is a
founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Your story won’t do shit to him,”
said the staffer. “He’s untouchable.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News,
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was not aware of the settlement.
“The current process includes the
signing of non-disclosure agreements by the parties involved. Congresswoman
Jackie Speier has introduced legislation that will provide much-needed
transparency on these agreements and make other critical reforms,” Pelosi said
in the statement. “I strongly support her efforts.”
News; Source: Office of Compliance
"Speaker Boehner was not aware
of this," Dave Schnittger, a spokesperson for John Boehner, told BuzzFeed
News in an email Tuesday. Boehner was the speaker of the House when the
settlement was made.
Speaker Paul Ryan's called the story
"extremely troubling" in a statement the morning after the story
"A Committee hearing last week
examining this issue led to a new policy of mandatory training for all members
and staff," Ryan said. "Additional reforms to the system are under
consideration as the committee continues its review. People who work in the
House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or
The documents also show that there
was a belief among at least some staffers that the office was a jealous
environment. Some of the documents allege Conyers offered his protection when
staff would complain to him about management in the office.
Kamm / AFP / Getty Images
Rep. Jackie Speier speaks during a
House Administration Committee hearing on preventing sexual harassment in the
congressional workplace, November 14.
California Democrat Rep. Speier and
colleagues in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would overhaul the complaint
process, including requiring the Office of Compliance to publicly name the
office of any member who enters into a settlement. The bill would also allow
complainants to waive mediation and counseling, set up a victims' counsel, and
require all congressional offices to go through harassment training every year.
Conyers’ office has a history of
ethical run-ins. In 2016, his former chief of staff Cynthia Martin pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property after
she refused to reimburse $16,500 that was mistakenly deposited in her account.
A preliminary investigation by the Office of
Congressional Ethics found that Conyers continued to pay Martin more than
$13,000 per month when she was supposedly on unpaid leave.
In 2006, two former aides complained that Conyers made
them babysit his children, run errands, and work on his reelection campaign
while drawing their congressional salaries. There was also a bizarre incident
in 2005 when 60 Thanksgiving turkeys, given to his staff to disperse to people,
may have gone missing.
Conyers’ wife, former Detroit city
councilor Monica Conyers, was sentenced to three years in prison over bribery
charges in 2010. (One of the documents alleged Conyers began “aggressively
acting out his sexual harassment behavior” following this.) Last year the
couple renewed their vows.