WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Congress opened an internal ethics investigation on Tuesday (Nov 21) into powerful Democratic lawmaker John Conyers, the longest-serving US congressman, after allegations that he harassed his female staff for years.
Conyers, an 88-year-old representative from Detroit who has served in the House of Representatives since 1965, paid US$27,000 (S$36,564) to settle a wrongful dismissal complaint after a former staffer said she was sacked because she would "not succumb to (his) sexual advances," BuzzFeed News reported.
Conyers, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, admitted that a payment was made, but also emphasized 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 took 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 added.
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 agreement, BuzzFeed said it had also obtained statements from other staff members accusing 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 Conyers did not admit liability, the report said.
Two other staffers meanwhile alleged in their 2014 testimony that Conyers used congressional resources to fly in women with whom they believed he was having affairs.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, described the report as "extremely troubling," adding that a process was underway to reform the way Congress deals with such cases.
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 midterm elections.
Several sexual misconduct scandals have recently plagued US politics - Democratic Senator Al Franken stands accused of groping by two women and could face an ethics committee, while Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore is reported to have preyed on teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Last week, two female House lawmakers said they knew of two male colleagues who engaged in harassment on the Hill.
And on Monday, Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette told MSNBC that former representative Bob Filner attempted to pin her against the wall of an elevator and kiss her several years ago.