WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Michigan Rep. John Conyers, under investigation over allegations he sexually harassed female staff members, said Sunday he will step aside as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee while fiercely denying he acted inappropriately during his long tenure in Congress.
In a statement, the 88-year-old lawmaker made clear he would prefer to keep his leadership role on the committee, which has wide jurisdiction over U.S. law enforcement, from civil rights and impeachment of federal officials to sexual harassment protections.
But Conyers acknowledged maintaining the post would be a distraction “in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me.”
“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,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience allow these charges to undermine my colleagues in the Democratic Caucus, and my friends on both sides of the aisle in the Judiciary Committee and the House of Representatives.”
Denying the allegations, Conyers, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who was first elected to the House in 1964, urged lawmakers to allow him “due process.”
“I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family,” Conyers said.
News website BuzzFeed reported last Monday 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 â€” rubbing their legs and backs â€” or requesting sexual favors.
Conyers says he will fully cooperate with the Ethics Committee, which said it will review the allegations of harassment and age discrimination as well as using “official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”
At least one House Democrat, Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, has called on Conyers to step down from Congress. Two others, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairman of the largest group of congressional liberals, had said Conyers should at least step aside from his leadership role on the Judiciary committee.
In a statement Sunday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she welcomed Conyers’ decision to give up the committee leadership post.
“Zero tolerance means consequences,” Pelosi said. “Any credible accusation must be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment. ”
The California Democrat noted that the House in the coming week will vote on requiring anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for all members and their staffs. She suggested that nondisclosure agreements like the one Conyers signed to settle the 2015 complaint should be made public.
The Senate has already approved a measure requiring all senators, staff and interns to be trained on preventing sexual harassment.
The flurry of activity Sunday comes as Congress prepares to return from its Thanksgiving break, amid increasing attention on the issue of sexual harassment with multiple men in entertainment, media and politics facing allegations of misconduct. On the congressional level, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore also are the subject of accusations.
Earlier Sunday, Pelosi defended Conyers as an “icon” for women’s rights and told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he will do the “right thing.”
“This is about going forward,” she said. “We also have to address it for every person, every workplace in the country, not just in the Congress of the United States. And that’s very important. And a good deal of that would be done by the Judiciary Committee.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is the next most-senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee after Conyers, the only African-American to have held the position of chairman or ranking member on the panel.
“Even under these unfortunate circumstances, the important work of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee must move forward,” Nadler said. “I will do everything in my power to continue to press on the important issues facing our committee, including criminal justice reform, workplace equality, and holding the Trump administration accountable.”
“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,” he added.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who sponsored legislation to overhaul the system by which sexual complaints are made and settled on Capitol Hill, said Congress must show a greater commitment to addressing sexual misconduct. Last month, she shared her own story of being sexually assaulted by a high-level aide while she was a staffer.
“This is absolutely a priority that we must focus on in terms of fixing the system,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.” ”We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are.”