Michigan's biggest newspaper calls on Conyers to resign

The Detroit Free Press, Michigan's largest circulation newspaper, published an editorial this morning calling on embattled Rep. John Conyers to resign.

Conyers, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, has been accused of sexually harassing a woman and covering it up using taxpayer dollars.  House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, among other Democrats, have called for an investigation by the ethics committee into Conyers's behavior.

John Conyers Jr. has a long and complicated legacy in southeast Michigan and the U.S. Congress. 

He has been an undisputed hero of the civil rights movement, a legislator of uncommon influence and power, and an aging icon whose felonious wife and sometimes-wandering pace have confounded his place in history. 

But the revelations of Conyers' alleged sexual harassment scandal and his documented use of taxpayer dollars to bury that scandal, in violation of congressional ethics rules, is less ambiguous.

It is the kind of behavior that can never be tolerated in a public official, much less an elected representative of the people.  

And it means that whatever Conyers' legacy will eventually be, his tenure as a member of Congress must end – now. 

He should resign his position and allow the investigation into his behavior to unfold without the threat that it would render him, and the people he now represents, effectively voiceless.

Conyers made a deal that kept the sexual harassment of a staffer quiet in exchange for what amounts to taxpayer funded hush money.

After the alleged victim made a formal complaint through the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance, Conyers' office endorsed an alternative route. If the woman dropped her complaint and signed a legal document attesting that Conyers had done no wrong, and if she agreed never to disparage him or make subsequent claims, she'd be re-hired as a temporary "no-show" employee and paid $27,111.75 over the course of three months. She accepted the terms.

Conyers' office defended the arrangement Tuesday as a means to avoid "protracted litigation" and defended the sum as a "reasonable severance payment." Conyers also continues to deny the woman's claims. 

But the House's ethics rules are clear: A House member can't retain an employee who isn't performing work commensurate with the pay, and regardless, can't give back pay for work that stretches further than a month. 

It's a rule Conyers has flouted before. 

He continues to battle an ethics complaint alleging that he violated House rules by keeping a former chief of staff on payroll after she was fired; Conyers' lawyers contend that the representative's office has the right to pay severance to its employees at will. Nor is Conyers the only member of Congress who has  come under fire for paying what they've described as severance. 

What makes this payment different? It looks an awful lot like hush money. 

It's unclear whether Conyers can survive this blow.  As the editorial mentions, he's skated on ethics complaints before.  But this morning, BuzzFeed is reporting that another female staffer claimed she was sexually harassed by Conyers and would have taken him to court except that the judge refused to seal the complaint.

A former scheduler in the Conyers' office attempted to file a sealed lawsuit against him this February in the US District Court for the District of Columbia that alleges she suffered unwanted touching by the Democrat "repeatedly and daily." She abandoned the lawsuit the next month, after the court denied her motion to seal the complaint.

The woman was not involved in the 2015 sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal complaint that Conyers settled in 2015, which was revealed Monday by BuzzFeed News, and is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

The lawsuit centered on behavior that took place later, from 2015 to 2016, but involves similar allegations. The woman said that shortly after she started to work for Conyers he began to make sexual advances in the form of inappropriate comments and touching.

"These behaviors and actions were so common and pervasive that they created a hostile work environment," she alleged.

Conyers's denials that he acted inappropriately with anyone ring hollow.  But is it enough to force him out?

John Conyers is the most powerful black politician in America.  He survived corruption charges relating to his wife, who is now serving time in jail. 

But this is different.  The powerful Detroit Free Press calling for him to step down is a blow not so much to his electoral prospects in 2018 – he is secure even if he goes to jail – but in the House itself.  If he stays, he is likely to be stripped of his committee chairmanships and still might be expelled once the ethics committee gets done with him.  His power has been broken, which may be the deciding factor for him to step down.

I imagine there are several – perhaps many – congressmen sweating right now.  I don't think there's any doubt that Conyers is not the only member who has been accused of sexual harassment in the past and paid someone to keep it quiet.  I don't think this is a matter of partisanship – both sides will have members who are guilty. 

Where will that leave Congress when all of this comes out?  In even more of a mess than it is now.


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