DETROIT — Democrats professed stunned embarrassment when news broke late last month that U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.) had not only become one more powerful man accused of sexual harassment — but had settled a claim with one former staffer for $27,111.75, evidently with taxpayer funds.
Rep. John Conyers speaks at a news conference. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, said Thursday that Conyers should resign, saying sexual harassment accusations made against him are "very credible."
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But you have to wonder if anyone in the know really could have been shocked. Stories about the 88-year-old congressman’s behavior were legendary; one staffer, Deanna Maher, who had been chief of staff in his downriver office, reportedly complained about sexual harassment to congressional authorities more than a decade ago.
She also said the congressman ordered her to move into his Detroit home and act as a nanny to his two young sons.
It’s long been known what a mess Mr. Conyers’ office operations have been.
Joel Thurtell, now a freelance investigative reporter and blogger who spent many years with the Detroit Free Press, has been a sometimes lonely voice reporting on Mr. Conyers for years.
“The information has been out there. The only surprise has been the media attention [now],” he told me. “Conyers has been untouchable.”
For years, in fact, Mr. Thurtell, and occasionally other journalists, have reported that Mr. Conyers forced congressional employees on his payroll to illegally work on his and other political campaigns during hours in which they were being paid by taxpayers.
Eleven years ago, he also reported that the congressman made staffers act as babysitters for his two children, run personal errands for the congressman, pick up his dry cleaning, and do his laundry.
There was also what Mr. Thurtell calls the “Thanksgiving 2004 turkey scandal,” in which a charity gave Mr. Conyers’ office 60 frozen turkeys for distribution to needy families.
They disappeared, evidently into the arms of well-paid Conyers staff members. No poor people ever seem to have gotten any turkeys.
At least one legislative aide, Dean Christian Thornton, complained about Mr. Conyers’ office in a letter to the House Ethics Committee on Jan. 15, 2004:
“My duties have been … to not only chauffeur the congressman, but his children, wife, other staff, and any visitors,” plus “organizing his personal belongings and lifting and carting heavy items.”
Mr. Thornton was fired that month.
But the House Ethics Committee declined to even issue a slap on the wrist to Mr. Conyers — after he benignly agreed to “clarify work rules,” to make sure staffers knew what their proper duties should be.
In other words, Congress acted as if all this was not a case of Mr. Conyers abusing the rules on multiple occasions — but a problem with staffers not knowing what their proper duties should be.
Mr. Thurtell said the current scandal could easily have been avoided. Articles stretching back to 2003 “drew a map for ethics investigators and federal prosecutors,” he said. “They chose to ignore it.”
Eventually, the reporter said, his editors at the Free Press told him to stop pursuing the Conyers story.
What’s baffling is that the authorities weren’t nearly so charitable to another black congressman from Detroit, Charles Diggs, who in 1954 became the first African-American from Michigan to be elected to Congress.
He was convicted in 1978 of taking kickbacks from staff members whose salaries he had raised. He was convicted, resigned from Congress in 1980, and served a little over a year in jail.
“Democrats could have saved themselves boatloads of grief if … they had made John Conyers conform to the rules and laws they applied” to Diggs, Mr. Thurtell said.
Well, perhaps. There is one large difference: Mr. Conyers, it is important to note, has not been charged with, much less convicted of, any crime. He has an impressive personal political machine that has won him re-election, time after time, since 1964.
Though he’s had a few serious primary challengers, none has proven a match for his name recognition and legend.
John Conyers has already served longer in Congress than any African-American in history; if he were to win three more terms, he would be the longest-serving congressman ever, surpassing John Dingell’s current record of more than 59 years.
Mr. Conyers, who at one time worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the segregated South, was the main sponsor of the bill to make the civil rights icon’s birthday a federal holiday.
He is a former chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, and the only member to have voted on the impeachments of both Richard Nixon (yes) and Bill Clinton (no.)
But his behavior has long been erratic, and in recent years, he does not always seem to be lucid or able to concentrate for long.
Frankly, it is hard to find any reason he should remain in office, though perhaps a case could be made for allowing him to retire gracefully a year from now, when his term expires.
But whether he will be willing to go is doubtful. There are hangers-on with powerful selfish interests in keeping him there.
Whether his colleagues have the guts to do the right thing and remove him if he declines to leave is more doubtful still.
Jack Lessenberry, the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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