House ethics panel investigates Rep. Conyers over sexual harassment claims

DETROIT (AP) — Longtime Michigan Rep. John Conyers acknowledged Tuesday that his office settled a harassment complaint involving a former staffer but said he "vehemently" denies the allegations against him.

His office "resolved the allegations" ... "for an amount that equated to a reasonable severance payment," the 88-year-old Detroit Democrat said in a statement.

The leaders of the House Ethics Committee said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the panel was opening an investigation into the allegations, including whether Conyers used official resources for impermissible personal purposes.

Conyers said he would fully cooperate.

BuzzFeed reported that Conyers' office paid a woman more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015 that she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances.

BuzzFeed also published affidavits from former staff members who said they had witnessed Conyers touching female staffers inappropriately — rubbing their legs and backs — or requesting sexual favors. One former staffer said one of her duties was "to keep a list of women that I assumed he was having affairs with and call them at his request and, if necessary, have them flown in using Congressional resources."

When questioned at his home Tuesday morning by The Associated Press, Conyers denied settling any harassment complaint and other allegations of inappropriate touching of staffers. The reporter repeated to Conyers the claims made in the BuzzFeed report.

"I have been looking at these things in amazement," Conyers said, referring to allegations of sexual harassment and assault being made against politicians and others.

A statement from Conyers' office said he was under the impression the AP reporter was speaking Tuesday of "recent allegations of which he was unaware of and denied."

"In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so," Conyers said later Tuesday in his statement about the settlement. "My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation."

Conyers is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving current member of the House, having arrived in 1965.

"As Members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives and to ensure a climate of dignity and respect, with zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan labeled the BuzzFeed report "extremely troubling." Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said the House is updating its policies for handling complaints of workplace harassment and discrimination, which have been criticized as too weak and cumbersome. His statement did not name Conyers, but Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong confirmed it was directed at him.

"People who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination," Ryan said.

BuzzFeed said it received the documents from right-wing activist Mike Cernovich, but had independently confirmed their authenticity. Cernovich said he gave the documents to BuzzFeed News because Democrats would "try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger" if he published them himself.

Cernovich also is an author and attorney who promoted a conspiracy theory about Democrats running a child-sex slavery ring from the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant.

The government has paid more than $17 million in taxpayer money over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes and other workplace violations filed by employees of Congress.

The Office of Compliance released the numbers amid a wave of revelations of sexual misconduct in the worlds of entertainment, business and politics that made its way to Capitol Hill last week.

Two female lawmakers described incidents of sexual harassment, one in explicit detail, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken apologized to a woman who said he forcibly kissed her and groped her during a 2006 USO tour.

AP reporter Juliet Linderman in Washington contributed to this report.

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