To paraphrase an old candy commercial: How many hits does it take to get to the center of an “icon,” and hold him accountable? A second former staffer of John Conyers has gone public with allegations of sexual harassment in his congressional office going back over two decades. Deanna Maher, Conyers’ #2, joins Melanie Sloan in corroborating the accounts within a previously secret settlement reached by the 26-term Democrat. Maher tells the Detroit News that her first indication of Conyers’ view of female staffers came very early in her employment:
Deanna Maher, Conyers’ former deputy chief of staff who ran his downriver office from 1997 to 2005, told The Detroit News that the Detroit Democrat made unwanted advances toward her three times. …
The first instance of harassment happened, Maher said, shortly after the congressman hired her in September 1997 during an event with the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I didn’t have a room, and he had me put in his hotel suite,” said Maher, 77, adding that she rejected his offer to share his room at the Grand Hyatt in Washington and have sex.
The other incidents with the now 88-year-old Conyers involved unwanted touching in a car in 1998 and another unwanted touching of her legs under her dress in 1999, she said.
If it started right away, News reporter George Hunter asked, why not report it? Maher didn’t see the point. She knew Conyers would get protected on Capitol Hill, and she needed the job:
“I needed to earn a living, and I was 57. How many people are going to hire you at that age?” she said.
Conyers’ status as a leading Democrat deterred her from going public at the time, Maher said, adding she doesn’t have anything to lose now.
“I didn’t report the harassment because it was clear nobody wanted to take it seriously,” she said. “John Conyers is a powerful man in Washington, and nobody wanted to cross him.”
Maher knows what she’s talking about. Just prior to her arrival in Conyers’ office, Congress created the Office of Compliance (OOC) to deal with harassment and discrimination complaints from Capitol Hill employees. The OOC was supposed to show that Congress would apply the same rules to themselves that they created for the private sector. As Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner writes, however, they couldn’t have designed a better system to bury complaints rather than make them transparent:
Created by the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) to help legislative branch employees who allege civil rights and other workplace violations, the Office of Compliance has kept the public in the dark for the most part about which lawmakers or offices have been accused of improper workplace behavior. The claims can range from sexual harassment or racial discrimination to workplace safety or labor law violations. Last week, BuzzFeed News revealed a settlement reached between Rep. John Conyers and a former employee who accused him of sexual harassment and wrongful termination under the CAA. Conyers acknowledged the settlement but has adamantly denied the allegation.
By law, the office is required to issue an annual report to the public that details the number of people who “initiated proceedings” with the office — called “requests for counseling,” which is the very beginning of the claims process. A BuzzFeed News review of the 21 years of annual reports from the Office of Compliance found that more than 400 House and Senate employees have made requests for counseling — meaning they alleged that their rights at work were violated — since the office opened in 1996.
Due to the secrecy imbued in the process, however, there is virtually no way to know what happened with those 400 requests, despite the fact that the allegations were levied against elected officials or the people they’ve hired. The office’s reports detail what happens, broadly, with all requests and complaints, but it does not differentiate what happened with the cases brought by employees of House or Senate offices, including whether a settlement was reached to resolve their allegations.
In order to file a complaint at all, the complainant has to first undergo 30 days of counseling and then go through a three-month cooling-off period, while another counter ticks down on the 180-day limit on filing complaints after the alleged incident took place. The OOC requires a mediation attempt in order to avoid lawsuits, and almost everything is kept under wraps. Can’t let a little harassment prevent a man like Conyers from getting his 26th term in office, can we?
That process did more than just shield Conyers and discourage women like Maher from coming forward. It protected Nancy Pelosi when she made history as the first woman to be elected House Speaker, holding the office for four years. Just what did Pelosi know about Conyers and his office environment? Was it as much of an “open secret” as the abusive environment in now-disgraced Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) office? Why was Pelosi so anxious for “due process” on Conyers Sunday rather than concerned about the women who work in his office? Conyers is a key political ally of Pelosi’s, that’s why, and that’s also why the OOC exists — to protect political allies on both sides of the aisle.
Pelosi and House Democrat leadership had better come up with a Plan B. The dam is breaking on Conyers, and they may all get caught up in a flood of recrimination for their silence during the years Conyers exploited his staff and defrauded taxpayers.