Black Dems see bias in response to sexual harassment cases

Black Dems see bias in response to sexual harassment cases
© Camille Fine

As Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems release first transcripts from impeachment probe witnesses Hispanic Caucus dedicates Day of the Dead altar to migrants who died in US custody Today On Rising: The media beclowns themselves on Baghdadi MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) faces mounting pressure to resign over a string of sexual harassment allegations, his closest allies in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) want the same scrutiny for other lawmakers facing similar charges.

“We’ve not been asked about [it] much, but Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE … settled a sexual harassment suit,” Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondCongress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran Election security, ransomware dominate cyber concerns for 2020 Trump nominates DHS senior cyber director MORE (D-La.), chairman of the CBC, noted this week.

Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenBill Press: Don't forget about Amy Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Al Franken mocks McConnell: 'Like listening to Jeffrey Dahmer complain about the decline of dinner party etiquette' MORE, one of our Democratic colleagues [in] the Senate, … has admitted to past actions of unwanted touching and/or groping.”

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Richmond’s references were to two other lawmakers, aside from Conyers, that made headlines in recent weeks after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against them.

Farenthold, a Texas Republican, had settled a harassment claim to a former aide after being sued over her firing in 2014. The $84,000 payout came from an obscure, taxpayer-backed settlement fund created for such purposes, Politico reported Friday. 

And Franken, a Minnesota Democrat and former “Saturday Night Live” comedian, has been under fire for weeks after a series of women emerged with tales of groping and other unwanted advances, both before and after Franken joined Congress. Two new accusations surfaced just this week.

A fourth lawmaker, Rep. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonEx-Tea Party lawmakers turn heads on K Street Longtime GOP aide to launch lobbying shop Katie Hill resignation reignites push for federal 'revenge porn' law MORE (R-Texas), has announced his retirement at the end of next year after a nude photo of the 17-term lawmaker appeared online. 

Richmond’s underlying message was left unstated, but privately CBC members have been asking it for days: Why is Conyers facing so much heat to resign while the others have largely been given a pass?

In a statement issued earlier in the week, Richmond stressed the importance of treating accused lawmakers “with parity” — a tacit reference to the Democrats’ response to the harassment allegations swirling around Franken. 

While a handful of House Democrats have urged Franken to resign, no Democratic senators have joined those calls. And House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment Trump chooses high-profile but controversial legal team Trump: Impeachment timing intended to hurt Sanders MORE (D-Calif.), who called for Conyers's resignation on Thursday, suggested last weekend that she’s willing to accept Franken’s apologies — if his accusers do as well.

“The victims have some say in all of this as well,” she told “Meet the Press.”

The distinction has not been overlooked by Conyers’s attorney, Arnold Reed, who met reporters Friday to reassert Conyers’s innocence and to suggest his client is being treated more harshly than other accused lawmakers. To make his point, he highlighted the recent news surrounding Farenthold’s settlement.  

“I haven’t heard as much as a peep from Washington as to whether this person needs to step down — not even as much as a peep,” Reed told reporters gathered outside of Conyers’s home in Detroit. “All that we’re saying here is we’re going to ensure that this is a fair process."

Arnold stopped short of saying there's a racial factor at play, but suggested Conyers is nonetheless being treated differently.

“I didn’t mention the word racial. … What I’m telling you is this: There is a lot of pressure that has come to bear from some Democrats on the congressman. In fact, they’ve talked about expulsion," he said. 

"But the congressman is not going to be pressured by any of that.”

Franken has not faced that same pressure in the upper chamber, where Senate Democrats have called the issue “serious” and deferred the allegations to the Senate Ethics Committee for investigation.

“I think that the Senate Ethics Committee should do its job as quickly and thoroughly as possible,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. 

Franken “needs to do some soul searching,” said Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade McCaskill: 'Mitch McConnell has presided over absolutely destroying Senate norms' Claire McCaskill: Young girls 'are now aspiring' to be like Warren, Klobuchar after debate MORE (D-Mo.), calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment MORE’s (R-Ky.) request for an Ethics investigation “the right thing to do.”

There are numerous differences between the allegations surrounding Conyers and those facing Franken. For one thing, the Conyers accusers are all former staffers whose charges stem from episodes that occurred while they were on the payroll and performing duties related to their jobs. The allegations surrounding Franken have originated largely from unaffiliated women during trips Franken took before he entered politics. 

When asked why Conyers has faced pressure in the House to resign, but Franken hasn’t in the Senate, McCaskill said she was “handcuffed by my experience as a sex crimes prosecutor.” She detailed four types of conduct: inappropriate behavior; conduct where a person can be sued for workplace discrimination or harassment; criminal conduct; and then potential criminal conduct based on the facts. 

“Facts matter in this continuum,” she said. “Clearly, Rep. Conyers, this conduct was for people that worked for him, that were under his control, that he had direct power over. That puts it in the middle category of actionable under the law.”

“Inappropriate. That may be enough to remove you from the United States Senate,” she said, “but I do think since it's in that bucket, it is wise to allow the ethics commission to do its work to see if in fact this is a pattern of conduct that is inappropriate for a U.S. senator.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinNew Parnas evidence escalates impeachment witnesses fight Pressure building on Pelosi over articles of impeachment Senate confirms Trump pick for small business chief MORE (D-Md.) called the issue “very serious,” but noted that the allegations didn’t take place inside Franken’s office. 

“It does not involve activities here on Capitol Hill that we know about, so it's different than Congressman Conyers’s issues, but I don’t even want to go down that path,” he said. “I'm hoping the Ethics Committee will give us guidance on how to handle this, and that's where I think is the appropriate place.” 

But while Democratic senators haven’t called for Franken to resign, a few House members have — notably Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the House Democratic Caucus Chairman. 

On Thursday, two more women accused Franken of sexual misconduct. The same day, the Senate Ethics Committee, which typically doesn’t comment on investigations, confirmed it had opened a “preliminary inquiry into Senator Franken’s alleged misconduct.” 

Franken has vowed that “this will not happen again going forward.”  

“Again, it’s going to take a long time for me to regain people’s trust, but I hope that starting work today that I can start to do that,” Franken told reporters outside his office Monday.

Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyTransgender detainees need protection — a letter from lawmakers doesn't provide it Lawmakers to call on ICE to release all transgender detainees House votes to impeach Trump MORE (D-Ill.) recently offered an approach designed to cut through the politics of race and chamber that have lingered about the different approaches to Conyers and Franken.

“If these allegations are true,” Quigley told CNN recently, “they should both go.”