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.
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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.
A voice for equality
We reach this conclusion with an incredible amount of disappointment.
The word “hero” is invoked, without much hyperbole, around Conyers’ name, dating not only to his initial run for Congress in the mid-1960s, but to the stalwart civil rights activism in the 1950s and early 1960s that brought him to that point.
His career in Congress saw him play key roles in everything from voting rights and health care reform to the creation of the Martin Luther King Holiday. And even in recent years, when he has struggled with focus and the rigor of the job, he has remained a steadfast voice for social justice and equality.
A problem in Congress
But even the most generous interpretation of the story revealed early this week is absolutely devastating to his ability to stay in Congress.
Monday night, the news site BuzzFeed reported a former Conyers staffer’s claims that she was fired after she rebuffed the congressman’s persistent sexual advances.
Those claims were made in sworn affidavits by the alleged victim and three other former staffers, all obtained by BuzzFeed.
In the current climate of revelations about powerful men abusing their positions and committing horrific acts of harassment, abuse or assault on women, those allegations should be enough to spur a dedicated congressional inquiry. Without a doubt, Congress has a real problem, and one that the American people deserve to see resolved.
A dishonest arrangement
But Conyers’ situation gets worse — far, far worse.
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.
Litigation, contrary to Conyers' statement, wasn't a certain outcome. The staffer's complaint was made through the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance, a secretive body that settles, for congressional employees, the kind of employment law violations that other businesses might hash out in court.
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Employees who bring claims through the compliance office are required to sign confidentiality agreements in order for a claim to proceed, a process that seems calculated to preclude the public accounting taxpayers, and voters, are owed. There's a special congressional office that works to resolve claims out of court. An employee determined to file a lawsuit has to go through months of counseling and mediation.
Over the last two decades, the office has paid $17 million to settle 264 complaints. Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, would require the office to change its operations, including naming each member who is involved in a claim.
That’s a reform worth pursuing.
But it’s also not the point with Conyers.
This agreement disrupted the accepted process to deal with claims against members of Congress, and leveraged taxpayer funds — without the oversight of the ethics apparatus of the body itself — to make this claim go away.
That’s not acceptable, on any level.
And it’s a betrayal that breaches the most fundamental trust that exists between a public servant and the people that person represents.
Even if Conyers could prove that he did not make inappropriate advances toward his former staffer, there’s no defense for having used dollars from his congressional office to “settle” a claim. That sort of thing happens in the private sector, yes. It should never, ever happen where public dollars (and public accountability) are concerned.
It’s impossible to know how frequently this happens in Congress. Conyers’ spokesperson said the House General Counsel’s office signed off on the agreement. But even if this deceptive practice has become commonplace, the Dean of the House should know better.
A public betrayal
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.
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.