Ethics panel probes Conyers allegations, as Dem leaders call claims 'disturbing'

The House Ethics Committee announced Tuesday it has launched an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Democratic Rep. John Conyers, after he admitted to settling a complaint with an ex-staffer who reportedly said she was fired for rebuffing his advances.

“The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative John Conyers, Jr. may have engaged in sexual harassment of members of his staff, discriminated against certain staff on the basis of age, and used official resources for impermissible personal purposes,” Ethics Committee Chairwoman Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., and Ranking Member Rep. Theodore Deutch, D-Fla., said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The Committee ... has begun an investigation and will gather additional information regarding these allegations.”

They added: “The Committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgement on behalf of the Committee.”

Following the announcement of the investigation, a second woman accused the congressman of sexual harassment, according to BuzzFeed News. The harassment allegedly occurred while she worked for Conyers as a scheduler.

According to the report, the woman filed a lawsuit in February against Conyers, claiming that she received unwelcomed touching “repeatedly and daily” between 2015 and 2016. But she reportedly dropped the lawsuit after a motion to seal the complaint was denied.

The motion was filed because she did not want to “irreparably harm” Conyers, BuzzFeed reported.

BuzzFeed News obtained the lawsuit documents but said they redacted the woman’s name to preserve her privacy.

The woman claimed in the lawsuit that the harassment came via inappropriate comments or touching that eventually became “so common and pervasive that they created a hostile work environment,” BuzzFeed News reported.

The harassment reportedly began not long after she began working for Conyers and over time escalated to daily encounters that included, “rubbing on her shoulders, kissing her forehead, covering and attempting to hold her hand,” as well as invitations to his home, she said in the court documents.

She alleged the behavior led her to experience “insomnia, anxiety, depression and chest pains,” BuzzFeed News reported.

The lawsuit also reportedly included a claim that Conyer’s wife called the woman a whore and said she’d wanted to have an affair with the representative.

The accuser eventually took a sick leave of absence in 2016, BuzzFeed reported, during which she claimed files were stolen from her flash drive and given to authority figures.

She ultimately was dismissed from her position after she refused to provide documents corroborating her need to be on leave, citing an “atmosphere of mistrust,” the report said.

BuzzFeed News said they could not reach the woman for comment. A spokesman for Conyers told the outlet, “[The former staffer] voluntarily decided to drop her case.”

News of Conyers alleged behavior first broke after BuzzFeed News reported Monday on the initial accusations, which fellow Democrats called “disturbing.”

Documents obtained by BuzzFeed reportedly detail several former staff members accusing Conyers of requesting sexual favors, rubbing their hands sexually and rubbing their legs and backs.

A woman who complained about her firing reportedly claimed she was dismissed because she did not “succumb to [his] sexual advances.” She reportedly believed she had no other option than to remain quiet and take the settlement in 2015.

Conyers initially told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he hadn’t settled any such harassment complaints.

But Conyers’ office issued a detailed clarification Tuesday afternoon, acknowledging the complaint was real, though the lawmaker disputed the underlying claims.

Conyers said Tuesday that he has been a “fierce advocate for equality in the workplace” and supports the rights of his employees, but noted that it was “important to recognize that the mere making of an allegation does not mean it is true.”

“In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me and continue to do so,” Conyers said, adding that his office resolved the allegations. “That should not be lost in the narrative. The resolution was not for millions of dollars, but rather for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment.”

Before the Ethics Committee announced its probe Tuesday afternoon, Conyers said that he would “fully cooperate with an investigation,” once the House determined the “extent” it would look at the “issues.”

By Tuesday afternoon, several Democratic leaders already were voicing concern about the claims and calling for an ethics investigation.

“This report is very disturbing,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Tuesday. “The House ought to observe a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment and discrimination, and I believe an ethics investigation is an appropriate next step.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also weighed in, saying that Congress must “ensure a climate of dignity and respect, with zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse.”

“As I have said before,” Pelosi said, “any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee.”

And the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which Conyers is a member, said they were aware of the “very serious and disturbing allegations” and his initial “statement emphatically denying these allegations.”

“We encourage and expect Mr. Conyers to cooperate fully with any and all investigations into this matter,” CBC Chairman Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., said in a statement.

Fox News’ Jason Donner contributed to this report.