*** Update 1 —House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls for an ethics probe into Congressman John Conyers, saying she has “zero tolerance” for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse. Full story HERE.
With Hollywood reeling from a seemingly endless flow of sexual assault and harassment allegations, it was only a matter of time before the attention shifted to Washington D.C.
But a troubling new report from BuzzFeed News sheds light on how long waiting periods, confidentiality agreements, and private (often taxpayer-funded) settlements ensure stories of abuse never make it out of the chambers of Congress—let alone the beltway.
The report centers around a claim made against veteran Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives and ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee. In 2015, Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal complaint with a former employee (who requested to remain anonymous) who alleged she was fired because she would not “succumb to [his] sexual advances.”
BuzzFeed obtained documents, including four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former staff members who alleged the congressman repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff. The unwanted overtures included “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.”
The site first received the documents, which were verified by four people involved in the litigation, from Mike Cernovich, the activist behind the “Pizzagate” conspiracy during the 2016 election. Cernovich said he handed them over because he believed Democrats and congressional leaders would “try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger” if he published them himself.
But even more eye-opening than the accusations against Conyers is the insight the documents provide into what BuzzFeed described as a “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,” she said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. “There was nowhere I could go.”
As BuzzFeed reported, the woman first launched a complaint against Conyers with the Office of Compliance, which serves as Congress’ makeshift human resources department, in 2014. Congressional employees have 180 days to report sexual harassment incidents to the OOC, 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 may follow. In this accuser’s case, she alleged she was fired for refusing Conyers sexual advances, which led to a “daunting process” that resulted in a “confidentiality agreement in exchange for a settlement of more than $27,000.”
The money was paid out of the congressman’s taxpayer-funded office budget. According to the documents, his office “rehired” the woman as a “temporary employee”—though she was never expected to report to work. She received a payment of $27,111.75 over the three months, at which point she was removed from the payroll. Conyers did not have to admit fault as part of the settlement, and his office has not commented on the allegations.
In a statement to BuzzFeed, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she was not aware of the settlement, though she supports new legislation aimed at reforming the reporting and settlement process.
“The current process includes the signing of non-disclosure agreements by the parties involved. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced legislation that will provide much-needed transparency on these agreements and make other critical reforms,” Pelosi said. “I strongly support her efforts.”
The Spier bill would require the OCC to streamline the complaint and review process and publicly name the member of Congress involved in a settlement, in addition to providing additional rights to accusers.
In a statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan echoed Pelosi’s calls for reform and called the BuzzFeed report “deeply troubling.”
“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 discrimination.”
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