WASHINGTON • The US Congress has opened an internal ethics investigation into powerful Democratic lawmaker John Conyers, the longest-serving US congressman, after allegations that he harassed his female staff for years.
The 88-year-old representative from Detroit, who has served in the House of Representatives since 1965, paid US$27,000 (S$36,500) to settle a wrongful dismissal complaint after a former employee said she was sacked because she would "not succumb to (his) sexual advances", BuzzFeed News reported.
Mr Conyers, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, admitted a payment was made, but also emphasised that he had always "expressly and vehemently denied the allegations". He added that he would cooperate in any House probe.
But House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi kept a distance from her colleague, calling for "zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse". "Any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee," she said on Tuesday.
Mr Conyers is the latest public figure to be accused of sexual harassment in an ever-widening scandal following the downfall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In addition to details of the 2015 settlement deal, BuzzFeed said it had also obtained statements from other staff accusing Mr Conyers of making repeated sexual advances, caressing their hands and rubbing their legs and backs in public.
The employee who was fired said that on one occasion, the congressman asked her to work from his hotel room and began talking about his sexual desire, urging her to touch his penis. The woman - who has not been named - signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement, and Mr Conyers did not admit liability, the report said.
Two other staff, meanwhile, alleged in their 2014 testimony that Mr Conyers used congressional resources to fly in women with whom they believed he was having affairs.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said the report was "extremely troubling", and a process was under way to reform the way Congress deals with such cases.
Mr Conyers is the most senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and would be in line to head it if his party gains a majority in next year's mid-term elections.
Several sexual misconduct scandals have recently plagued US politics. Democratic Senator Al Franken is accused of groping by two women and could face an ethics committee, while Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore allegedly preyed on teenage girls when he was in his 30s.