Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Yesterday evening brought us three more long-buried stories of sexual harassment and “open secrets,” but one of them involved public corruption — and might finally pull the lid off Capitol Hill. Buzzfeed’ Paul McLeod and Lissandra Villa verified documents provided to them by alt-right activist Mike Cernovich that detail a sexual harassment settlement involving the most senior House member, John Conyers (D-MI):
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 details of the harassment itself seem agonizingly familiar to the stories of other abusers, but this time with one twist. Conyers tried to get the woman to pimp for him if she wouldn’t comply:
In her complaint, the former employee said Conyers repeatedly asked her for sexual favors and often asked her to join him in a hotel room. On one occasion, she alleges that Conyers asked her to work out of his room for the evening, but when she arrived the congressman started talking about his sexual desires. She alleged he then told her she needed to “touch it,” in reference to his penis, or find him a woman who would meet his sexual demands.
That’s quite the choice to lay on a young woman in politics: Either yank his crank or turn out an unknowing acquaintance to do it for you. Classy.
Conyers appears to be another “open secret” in the halls of power, just like Charlie Rose and Oliver Stone yesterday in their own arenas. But Conyers had other secrets as well. For instance, two former staffers testified in affidavits that the Congressman had used taxpayer funds to transport women to him for the purpose of conducting sexual affairs, and another acted as their driver:
Two staffers alleged in their signed affidavits that Conyers used congressional resources to fly in women they believed he was having affairs with. Another said she was tasked with driving women to and from Conyers’ apartment and hotel rooms.
The most shocking aspect of this story (these days, at least) was the picayune settlement one staffer received, which produced the documentation that fueled Buzzfeed’s report. It took several months of navigating the labyrinthine Office of Compliance (OOC) for the woman to receive a grand total of $27,111.75 over a three-month period by setting her up as a temporary employee who didn’t have to show up to work. That kept the settlement within Conyers’ office budget rather than the normal fund used to settle workplace complaints from Congressional staffers. The woman then found herself persona non grata on Capitol Hill when her period of “temporary employment” ended; she describes herself as being “blackballed.”
The process was “disgusting,” said Matthew Peterson, who worked as a law clerk representing the complainant, and who listed as a signatory to some of the documents.
“It is a designed cover-up,” said Peterson, who declined to discuss details of the case but agreed to characterize it in general terms. “You feel like they were betrayed by their government just for coming forward. It’s like being abused twice.”
Under federal law, complainants must undergo a confidential process, where co-workers who might be able to provide corroborating evidence are excluded. They often must wait about three months before submitting an official complaint, yet must file one no later than 180 days after the episode. Once filed, victims must submit to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling and complete another 30 days of mediation.
If mediation fails, the person then must wait 30 more days before seeking an administrative hearing or filing a lawsuit in Federal District Court.
Get that? If you’ve been abused, the very first thing that happens is that you get treated like a mental patient for thirty days, and then spend another thirty days with a mediator who’s trying to convince you to settle out rather than file a complaint. That’s one-third of the time allowed to file that complaint, too. If a private company set up a reporting process like this, the Department of Justice would have sued them into oblivion.
It’s time to end the OOC, which appears to be thoroughly and purposefully designed just as Peterson describes: to protect those in power and cover up wrongdoing. Both chambers of Congress have debated bills requiring sexual-harassment abatement training in Congressional offices, but that’s not going to end the problem. Congress needs to create an independent agency within the legislative branch to handle investigations of abuse and prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements in settling claims. Whatever the OOC actually is, it’s certainly not a transparent vehicle for accountability, and its reputation has become so tarnished as to make it irretrievable.
When Congress creates an independent agency that will provide both accountability and transparency, then we can take their lamentations over abuse on Capitol Hill and everywhere else seriously. Until then, the least that can be done is to get the House to clean its own ranks and push Conyers off of Capitol Hill for both the abuse and the corrupt acts he used to serve his own libido.
Addendum: It’s not just sexual abuse that requires accountability either. The toxic, abusive environment in Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) office was another “open secret” until an affair took him down. How can voters hold these officeholders accountable if they don’t know about them? That’s precisely why legislators created the OOC labyrinth in the first place — to duck accountability and keep the voters snowed. Enough. It’s time for Congress to adhere to the same levels of accountability that they demand from the rest of us.
Update: A great point from John Richards on Twitter:
It's important to note that Conyer's settlement wasn't even paid out of that fund. The $27K came out of his office operating account. Which begs the question… How many others have been secretly settled this way?
— John Richards (@John__Richards) November 21, 2017
We’ll never know. And that’s the point of the Office of Compliance.