The resignation of Congressman John Conyers, who served metro Detroit for 53 years in Washington, is a tragedy. A wasted end to a storied career, mostly spent fighting for justice and equality, keeping the flame alive in the long quest for civil rights.
And an ignominious collision of the congressman’s alleged inappropriate behavior — and the regrettable steps he took to conceal those allegations — with a culture that, finally, is waking to the horror of how prevalent and unacceptable are workplace sexual harassment and assault.
But this is necessary — and overdue.
Conyers announced Tuesday on live radio that he is retiring, effective immediately. He endorsed his son, John Conyers III, for election to the seat he plans to vacate.
But that interview, conducted with long-time Detroit radio host Mildred Gaddis, served almost to summarize the worst, and best, of Conyers.
The 88-year-old congressman seemed almost to have forgotten that he was meant to make an announcement, endorsing his son before saying that he planned to retire, a face-saving dodge that belies the truth of Conyers’ mid-term resignation.
Conyers said that he was in good health — he’s spent much of the last week in a hospital, per his attorney — and that he was proud of his family. His legacy, he said, was not diminished or compromised by the allegations against him, which he seemed to dismiss as “the game of politics.” His son, Conyers assured listeners, would work for justice, just as he has done.
And Conyers agreed when Gaddis asked whether the secretive process that usually settles complaints of illegal workplace behavior in Congress should be thrown open.
“I think there should be a complete disclosure, revealing to all the citizens of this country what your federal legislators are doing or not doing, and any cost that may have been incurred as a result of that,” he said. “My answer to that is a strong, unequivocal yes.”
We agree. We just wish he’d applied this standard to his own behavior.
What Conyers is accused of — sexual harassment of several staffers over many years — is unacceptable. His accusers’ stories are deeply resonant and similar, and his denials are blanket but non-specific. It never was acceptable, but in the current climate of revelation and consequence around sexual misconduct, it is even less so.
Conyers’ defenders have pointed time and again to the concept of due process, saying it was premature to judge his behavior and mete out consequences.
But it was Conyers himself who circumvented the due process that exists for these kinds of charges in Congress, and who cut a side deal with his accuser that included a no-show job, paid for with taxpayer funds.
It was that bizarre and unprecedented interruption of due process — sure to be the focus of an announced investigation by the congressional ethics committee — that caused this editorial board to call for Conyers’ resignation two weeks ago.
Claims of illegal workplace behavior in the U.S. House of Representatives are settled by the House Office of Compliance, and overseen by the House Administration committee. The process is shrouded in confidentiality. The office has paid $17 million to settle 264 complaints over the last two decades. The House Administration committee must approve any settlements.
Marion Brown, the woman whose claim against Conyers touched off this firestorm, made a complaint through the House Office of Compliance, and was pursuing a settlement with the congressman through that process. But when it stalled, Conyers’ office offered to pay Brown $27,000 for a no-show job from his office funds, on the condition that she’d agree to withdraw the formal complaint.
That’s what Conyers admitted to: a settlement outside the mechanisms of congressional due process to keep a sexual harassment allegation quiet.
And that’s why his resignation was necessary, even before an investigation could verify or disprove the claims against him.
It didn’t have to come to this. Conyers’ slowed pace in recent years and increasing difficulty managing reality should have inspired him to retire before now. This editorial board recently began endorsing Conyers’ opponents, but has long argued that his district was ready for a change, and for reinvigorated representation.
And Conyers’ own innate sense of justice, the core belief of his life’s work, should have made the conduct of which he is accused anathema to him, and the shady deal to hide it even more unthinkable.
There is no joy in this resignation. But there are, we hope, lessons.
DETROIT FREE PRESS (TNS)