In an abrupt about-face, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is calling on Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) to resign amid a growing chorus of claims that he made sexual advances toward his female staffers.
“The allegations against Congressman Conyers are serious, disappointing, and very credible,” Pelosi said Thursday during a weekly press conference. “The brave women who came forward are owed justice. I pray for Congressman Conyers and his family and wish them well, however; Congressman Conyers should resign.”
Nancy Pelosi: "Congressman Conyers should resign" following "serious, disappointing, and very credible" allegations. pic.twitter.com/rXRmH1JxII— Josh Caplan (@joshdcaplan) November 30, 2017
Pelosi previously defended Conyers and said he was entitled to due process during a Meet the Press interview on Sunday. She also appeared to question Conyers’s accusers during the interview.
“I don’t know who they are,” Pelosi told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “Do you? They have not really come forward.”
Now the tide appears to be turning against Conyers — meaning Congress may face a sexual harassment reckoning similar to the one currently engulfing Hollywood and the media.
Why the longest-tenured House member is suddenly under fire
Conyers, 88, is the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, to which he was elected in 1964. Until last week, he had served as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and he is one of the founding members of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus. He has been absent from Capitol Hill this week, flying back to his home state of Michigan. He is being treated at a local hospital for a “stress-related illness,” a family spokesperson told reporters.
BuzzFeed first reported last week that Conyers had settled a wrongful dismissal complaint with a female staffer in 2015, after the woman alleged she was fired from his House office after she refused to “succumb to [his] sexual advances.” BuzzFeed also obtained signed affidavits in which more of Conyers’s staff accused him of “requests for sex acts, 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.”
Conyers has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct, but he confirmed to BuzzFeed that he had paid his former staffer $27,000 as part of the settlement.
“My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation,” he said in a statement. “The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”
After receiving backlash for her Meet the Press appearance and speaking to Melanie Sloan, one of Conyers’s accusers who went public, Pelosi backtracked on her original comments.
“I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing,” she said in a statement. “I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
In her statement, Pelosi also spoke about reforming how Congress deals with sexual harassment claims, joining other prominent female Congress members who have spoken out on the issue.
Pelosi is not the only prominent Democrat to do so. On Thursday, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also called on Conyers to resign.
It’s not just about Conyers — there’s a wider reckoning around sexual harassment
In the wake of sexual harassment revelations around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile figures, the allegations against Conyers and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) also drew attention to the opaqueness of how sexual harassment is dealt with in Congress. Over the past 20 years, Congress has paid out more than $15 million in taxpayer money to settle discrimination claims, including ones dealing with sexual harassment. As Vox’s Jane Coaston writes:
The process by which victims of sexual harassment on the Hill seek justice is long and arduous — it takes up to three months before a formal complaint can be filed. If a settlement is reached, it’s kept secret. The source of the money in the fund is excluded from the standard appropriations budget made public by Congress each year. There’s no process by which voters — or potential employees — can find out who the harassers in office are, what they’ve been accused of, or if they’ve settled with victims before.
On Tuesday, a former field staffer for Conyers named Deanna Maher, 77, alleged that Conyers undressed in front of her in a hotel room in the late 1990s and touched her on three occasions, including one where he allegedly put his hands underneath her clothes.
The House Ethics Committee is currently investigating Conyers’ conduct; however, he was not explicitly told to leave by his fellow members of Congress, who instead said that the investigation should be able to take its course. As of Wednesday, just two members of Congress, Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), were calling on Conyers to resign.
Franken, a former Saturday Night Live comedian and current US senator, is also facing numerous sexual misconduct allegations. There are now six women who have leveled accusations at Franken, including two new allegations Thursday morning. One came from an Army veteran named Stephanie Kemplin, who told CNN that Franken groped her breast during a photo op on a 2003 USO tour.
“Democrats cannot lambaste Trump and Moore, and then turn a blind eye to our own who face credible charges against them,” Jayapal said in a statement. “For justice to be done in cases with substantial evidence, a simple denial is not sufficient; the relinquishment of power becomes essential. It is not easy for me to reach this conclusion because, as a civil rights activist, I have looked up to Rep. Conyers for decades. I believe these women, I see the pattern and there is only one conclusion — Mr. Conyers must resign.”
Others were hesitant.
“I don’t know all the facts, I don’t know the specific allegations,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, on Wednesday. “It appears there is more than one complainant, which does heighten my sense [that] there may be something there. But again, I can’t sit and judge a member and call for their resignation unless I’ve been party to hearing all of the evidence and hearing the defense of the evidence.”