Amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, Judiciary Commitee Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers will step down, he said in a statement Sunday afternoon. He made clear that he denies the allegations, but he believes that his presence on the committee is currently detracting from the work it is doing.
"To be clear, I would like very much to remain as ranking member. There is still much work to be done on core concerns like securing civil rights, enacting meaningful criminal justice reforms, and protecting access to the ballot box," Conyers wrote. "But I have come to believe that my presence as ranking member on the committee would not serve these efforts while the ethics committee investigation is pending."
Former staffers accused Conyers of making sexual advances, inappropriate touching, and other sexual misconduct. The accusations came after BuzzFeed published a report that Conyers had settled a wrongful dismissal lawsuit after a woman claimed she was fired when she refused to "succumb to [his] sexual advances." Conyers confirmed he settled with the former employee, but denied the claims of sexual harassment.
The announcement that he would step aside came shortly after House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was heavily criticized for calling Conyers an "icon" on national television Sunday morning. She quickly released a statement saying, "We must ensure the Congress has a climate of dignity and respect with zero tolerance for sexual harassment."
The way staffers must report sexual harassment in Congress is a lengthy process that involves mandatory counseling and mediation before an accuser can reach a settlement or enter litigation. When a settlement is reached, a non-disclosure agreement is often required, meaning accusers cannot tell others about what they went through.
Lawmakers are working to change that. Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the "Me Too" Act (Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act), which would protect employees who report sexual harassment. "If we’re going to take on sexual harassment and assault in workplaces across the country the halls of Congress can be no exception," Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, who is a co-sponsor on the bill, told Bustle last week.
In his statement, Conyers said:
I am proud and fortunate to be part of a legacy of more than 50 years of fighting for civil rights and making our country more equitable and just. I will never allow that legacy — a legacy I owe to my father, John Conyers, Sr., who integrated labor unions, or my two amazing sons John III and Carl and my loving wife Monica, and the extraordinary people of Detroit — to be cast aside, or these causes to be in any way diminished.
I am grateful to my colleagues who have called for due process before weighing judgment. I would urge them to continue to do so for any Member accused of wrongdoing. Basic fairness requires no less.
Conyers will step down as ranking member only while the investigation takes place, he said. During that time, Rep. Jerrold Nadler will likely be the one to assume the job, as he is the next most senior ranking Democrat on the committee. "Ranking member Conyers has a 50-year legacy of advancing the cause of justice, and my job moving forward is to continue that critical work," Nadler said in a statement.
A lawyer for Conyers said he does not plan to resign from Congress.