The Washington Post had an interesting report late last week, noting that over the last 20 years, Congress’ Office of Compliance paid “more than $17 million for 264 settlements and awards to federal employees.” That led to some discussion about the total going entirely to targets of sexual harassment, but that wasn’t quite right.
The settlements and awards have covered a variety of claims, ranging from alleged wage violations to alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That said, we can say with certainty that some of these cases involved members of Congress and claims of sexual misconduct.
BuzzFeed highlighted one such case over night.
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] sexual advances.”
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 authentic.
The woman, whose identity was not revealed, made the complaint in 2014. She eventually received a settlement of $27,000. The article added, “Rep. Conyers did not admit fault as part of the settlement. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Monday.” [Update: See below.]
There’s no shortage of angles surrounding revelations such as these, including the quickly growing list of men in positions of authority who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct. It’s a distinct possibility that BuzzFeed’s report will end the Michigan Democrat’s congressional career, which began way back in 1965.
It also seems very likely that the public is poised to learn quite a bit more about the scope of these congressional settlements – because it’s taxpayers who are picking up the tab.
The woman featured in the BuzzFeed article received a settlement paid for through Conyers’ office budget, rather than the budget for Congress’ Office of Compliance, but both are funded entirely by public money.
Compounding matters is the need to overhaul the underlying system. BuzzFeed’s report explained, “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.”
Those who follow Capitol Hill closely know various members have called for systemic reforms for years, but with increased awareness about sexual misconduct, those calls have suddenly reached a new volume.
The question, then, is what happens now – not only to Conyers and others in his position, but also to the process in place to deal with situations like these.
Historically, Congress, dominated by men who crafted the system to their own benefit, have resisted sweeping reforms that would produce lasting change. Lawmakers have an opportunity to chart a better course now.
Update: Conyers told the AP he never settled any sexual-harassment claims. Second Update: Conyers now says he was confused by the AP’s question, and there was a settlement, but he denies the underlying allegations.
Meanwhile, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, has called for fan Ethics Committee investigation. So has Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), another Judiciary Committee member.