Dems stop short of demanding Conyers step down from powerful committee

Democrats aren't yet calling for Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersAbortion-rights group endorses Nadler in race to replace Conyers on Judiciary Democrats turn on Al Franken Michigan state senator to run for Congress MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) to relinquish his powerful post atop the House Judiciary Committee amid sexual harassment allegations. 
 
While Democrats have endorsed an ethics probe of the sexual harassment accusations against Conyers, none so far have pushed for Conyers to step down as the top Democrat on the panel.
 
Conyers is the longest-serving House member and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, posing the biggest test yet for Democrats who say they want to hold sexual harassers accountable. 
 
Conyers gave no indication that he will step aside, even temporarily, following a BuzzFeed News report that he settled a wrongful dismissal complaint two years ago with a former staffer who alleged she was fired because she wouldn’t succumb to his sexual advances.  
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Former staff members alleged that Conyers repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff, touched them inappropriately, used congressional resources to fly in women with whom he was suspected of having affairs and complained that a female staffer was “too old” and therefore he wanted to dismiss her.
 
For now, Democratic leaders are following the same strategy as their Senate counterparts did a week ago when a Los Angeles radio news anchor revealed that Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenDemocrats turn on Al Franken Schumer called, met with Franken and told him to resign Overnight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 MORE (D-Minn.) forcibly kissed and groped her during a USO tour in 2006.
 
 
“The Committee on Ethics should take up this matter immediately with a goal of promptly assessing the validity of the news account. This reported behavior cannot be tolerated in the House of Representatives or anywhere else,” Lofgren said in a statement.
 
Nadler called the allegations “extremely serious and deeply troubling” and said they “must be investigated promptly by the Ethics Committee.”
 
 
“As members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives and to ensure a climate of dignity and respect, with zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse. As I have said before, any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee,” Pelosi said.
 
The House Ethics Committee later announced that it would investigate the allegations against Conyers. 
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Conyers denied any wrongdoing and said that a settlement was reached with an “express denial of liability” to avoid “the rigors of protracted litigation” for all parties involved. 
 
“To the extent the House determines to look further at these issues, I will fully cooperate with an investigation,” Conyers said in a statement.
 
BuzzFeed News reported that the former staffer was paid more than $27,000 in the settlement in exchange for a confidentiality agreement. 
 
Settlements handled through the process run by the Office of Compliance, which handles harassment and discrimination complaints from Capitol Hill staff, are typically paid out from a special fund operated by the Treasury.
 
But the settlement payments, in this case, were instead paid out from Conyers’s office over the course of three months. His office would “rehire” the former staffer as a “temporary employee,” even though she did not do any actual work, in order to make the payments.
 
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced legislation with Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocrats turn on Al Franken Report: Franken will resign Thursday Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign MORE (D-N.Y.) to overhaul the Office of Compliance process for reporting complaints, including to make what’s currently a mandatory counseling and mediation period with the employing office only optional.
 
Their bill would also require lawmakers accused of harassment to pay back the taxpayers. In addition, the Office of Compliance would have to publish the names of offices involved in settlements on its website.
 
The Office of Compliance released data last week indicating that more than $17 million has been paid to victims since the late 1990s. That figure includes all settlements for a wide range of discrimination and harassment cases, such as racial or religious discrimination.
 
Speier warned that the amount of taxpayer money to settle harassment cases may be even higher if lawmakers are using their office budgets to make settlements that are officially distributed as severance payments. 
 
“If this is true, the amount of taxpayer money used to settle these cases is even higher than the number that’s been provided by the Office of Compliance,” Speier said.
 
Despite endorsements of an ethics probe, the committee’s investigation is likely to be time-consuming. In the meantime, Conyers would still be the top Democrat on one of the most influential committees in Congress.
 
Democrats had already been considering replacing Conyers if they win back the House next year given how the 88-year-old lawmaker is “slower and less robust” than he once was, according to a Politico report in June. 
 
Conyers chaired the Judiciary Committee from 2007 to 2011 and has served as the ranking Democrat ever since.
 
The House Judiciary Committee would oversee impeachment proceedings, as well as other investigations into the Trump administration that Democrats might pursue. 
 
There’s recent precedent for House Democrats pushing out a senior, entrenched Democrat atop a powerful committee. Democrats replaced 86-year-old Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) with 68-year-old Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealPelosi denounces GOP tax reform as 'armageddon' Dems stop short of demanding Conyers step down from powerful committee Overnight Finance: House passes sweeping tax bill in huge victory for GOP | Senate confirms banking regulator | Mulvaney eyed for interim head of consumer agency MORE (D-Mass.) as the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee following last year’s elections.
 
Democrats do have a caucus rule requiring members to step down from leadership posts if they are indicted, such as former Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) in 2015, but not if they are under a House Ethics Committee investigation.
 
Yet there is still one recent example of a committee leader stepping aside in some fashion amid an ethics probe.
 
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTop intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father House Intel chairman planning contempt resolution against FBI, DOJ officials: report Ryan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill MORE (R-Calif.) recused himself from the panel’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election in April once the Ethics panel said it would review whether he made unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
 
But the issue of pushing out an older lawmaker is particularly sensitive with Conyers, given his status within the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which is highly influential among House Democrats. 
 
Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondThe nearly 60 Dems who voted for impeachment House rejects Democrat's resolution to impeach Trump Black Dems see bias in response to sexual harassment cases MORE (D-La.), the chairman of the CBC and member of the Judiciary Committee, expressed support for the ethics investigation while declining to say if Conyers should step down from the committee.
 
“The CBC has been made aware of some very serious and disturbing allegations against our colleague John Conyers, as well as his statement emphatically denying these allegations. We encourage and expect Mr. Conyers to cooperate fully with any and all investigations into this matter,” Richmond said.
 
So far, only one lawmaker has raised the possibility of Conyers resigning. 
 
Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga, another member of the Michigan delegation, said that Conyers should resign if the allegations against him are true.
 
“This outrageous conduct is completely unacceptable and needs to be investigated. If these claims are true, he should resign,” Huizenga said in a statement provided to The Hill.