Top Democrat Conyers steps aside from House judiciary post amid sexual harassment inquiry

Representative John Conyers Jr, the US House of Representative's longest-serving lawmaker, is stepping aside as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee amid a sexual harassment inquiry. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Representative John Conyers Jr, the US House of Representative's longest-serving lawmaker, is stepping aside as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee amid an investigation into allegations that he sexually harassed former aides.

"After careful consideration and in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me," Mr Conyers said in a statement on Sunday (Nov 26), he is stepping aside on the Judiciary panel "during the investigation of these matters".

The announcement came five days after the revelation that Mr Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, had settled a complaint in 2015 by a former employee who had said she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances. The House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into the matter.

"I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger," Mr Conyers said in the statement. "I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics."

The news of the settlement was first reported by BuzzFeed News, which said it received documents about the case from Mr Mike Cernovich, a right-wing online commentator. BuzzFeed has reported that a second woman has also accused Mr Conyers of sexual harassment.

Mr Conyers said in his statement that he would "like very much to remain as ranking member", but had "come to believe that my presence as ranking member on the committee would not serve these efforts while the Ethics Committee investigation is pending".

His lawyer, Mr Arnold E. Reed, said in a phone interview on Sunday that Mr Conyers had taken several days to decide to step aside from his committee post because he did not want to make an "off the cuff" move.

Mr Conyers spoke with several family members and deliberated during the Thanksgiving holiday before determining that the allegations had become too much of a distraction, the lawyer said.

"He wanted time to think about this and reach a conclusion that he was comfortable with. And it was the right thing to do in his mind," Mr Reed said. "He is maintaining that he did not do anything wrong. He is maintaining his innocence. This is a temporary stepping aside his position as ranking member so this can be a completely transparent and unfettered investigation."

On Wednesday, Mr Reed had said in an interview that Mr Conyers, 88, believed that some of those suggesting that he step down, including fellow Democrats, had been scheming for years to push him out of his Judiciary post.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, suggested in a statement that she supported Mr Conyers' decision.

Earlier, in an interview on Meet the Press, Ms Pelosi said she expected that Mr Conyers would "do the right thing", though she was not specific.

"Zero tolerance means consequences," Ms Pelosi said in the statement. "I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, Congressman Conyers has agreed to step aside as ranking member."

The House is expected this week to pass a resolution mandating that all members and their staffs participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.

Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, who holds the recently created position of vice ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, praised Mr Conyers for making a "wise decision".

Mr Raskin is a co-sponsor of legislation put forth by Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, to overhaul the way sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill, and to put an end to the practice of paying secret settlements out of the federal Treasury.

"The House is ready to clean house with respect to sexual harassment, and everybody agrees that we need to have a zero-tolerance policy," Mr Raskin said in an interview, adding, "We should never normalise sexual harassment in the workplace."

Lawyer Lisa Bloom, who announced on Sunday that she was representing the woman who filed the complaint against Mr Conyers, said that a confidentiality agreement was preventing the woman from telling her side of the story.

Ms Bloom urged Mr Conyers to release her client from the agreement so she could speak publicly.

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