WASHINGTON — Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, moved swiftly on Tuesday against the House’s longest serving lawmaker, calling for the House Ethics Committee to investigate sexual harassment charges against Representative John Conyers Jr., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers, 88, confirmed a settlement of a wrongful termination complaint in 2015 from a staff member who had accused him of sexual harassment, although he denied that the staff member was fired for refusing to have sex with him. The settlement was first reported by BuzzFeed News on Monday.
Pelosi and senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee offered little support.
“Any credible allegation of sexual harassment must be investigated by the Ethics Committee,” Pelosi said, adding that there should be “zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying, or abuse in the House.”
Sexual harassment charges are roiling Capitol Hill, as they have shaken Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the media. But in Conyers’ case, the charges quickly meshed with other issues, from the advanced age of some House members to the desire of younger Democrats for new leadership.
Specifically, the House Judiciary Committee would become a focal point for inquiries into the conduct of President Trump and his administration if Democrats seize control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. And some Democrats have been angling for stronger leadership.
Conyers, who entered the House in 1965 and has for decades led the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, denied any wrongdoing and said the money paid to his accuser amounted to a “reasonable severance payment.”
But legal documents published by BuzzFeed show repeated allegations by women staff members of requests for sex, suggestive touching, caresses, and other sexual improprieties.
The calls for an investigation came as Democrats privately raised the prospect that Conyers would at least be asked to step aside from the coveted top Judiciary post. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers holds the venerated title of dean of the House. But he has also been a target of Democrats who are eager to bring fresh blood into the Judiciary Committee leadership for some time, three congressional officials said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin called the report of Conyers’ settlement “extremely troubling.”
“People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination,” Ryan said.
However, on Tuesday morning at his home in Detroit, Conyers told The Associated Press that he knew nothing about any claims of inappropriate touching and learned of the story from television just hours earlier. “I have been looking at these things in amazement,” he told a reporter. Hours later, a spokeswoman for Conyers hinted that the reporter’s questions confused the congressman. “Congressman Conyers was under the impression the reporter was speaking of recent allegations of which he was unaware of and denied,” the spokeswoman said.
Conyers also released a statement that began by touting himself as a “fierce advocate for equality in the workplace” and a supporter of the “rights of employees who believe they have been harassed or discriminated against.” He went on to say that though he had settled the claim, he had done nothing wrong and would “fully cooperate” if the House moved to investigate the matter.
“It is important to recognize that the mere making of an allegation does not mean it is true,” Conyers said. “In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so. My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative.”
According to the documents obtained by BuzzFeed, a former staff member said she was fired because she would not succumb to Conyers’ “sexual advances.” The publication also obtained affidavits from other staff members who said Conyers repeatedly harassed women working for him through actions that included requests for sexual acts, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public.
Conyers found little support from fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus or Michigan’s delegation.
Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, called the allegations “deeply disturbing” and said the veteran congressman should face an investigation by the House ethics panel.
And few members of the black caucus rose in Conyers’ defense. Reached by telephone, Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, the Democratic chairman of the group, said he wanted to gather more information and talk to Conyers before weighing in.
“I think it raises a bunch of questions,” Richmond said. While the black caucus has long stood with Conyers and been among the loudest voices in defense of respecting congressional seniority, some members in the caucus are said to have little interest in continuing to back him.
Representative Karen Bass, Democrat from California, said that while Conyers had an “unbelievable” impact on history and Congress, she wanted to know more about the settlement. “I am absolutely going to defend his legacy, but I am not going to defend sexual harassment for anyone,” she said.