Updated Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2:15 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Conyers acknowledging the settlement and responding to the allegations and clarifying his initial denial.
Updated Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2:45 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from Nancy Pelosi.
Updated Tuesday, Nov. 21, 5:25 p.m.: This post has been updated with information about the House Ethics Committee investigation.
The House Ethics Committee has said it has opened an investigation into sexual harassment complaints against Rep. John Conyers, according to the Associated Press. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement earlier Tuesday the committee should investigate “any credible allegation of sexual harassment” by Conyers, according to the AP.
Conyers acknowledged Tuesday that he settled the sexual harassment complaints with a former staffer but denied the allegations of sexual harassment after BuzzFeed News reported Monday night on the 2015 settlement and allegations of sexual misconduct from several female staff members.
“I have long been and continue to be a fierce advocate for equality in the workplace and I fully support the rights of employees who believe they have been harassed or discriminated against to assert claims against their employers,” Conyers wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “That said, it is important to recognize that the mere making of an allegation does not mean it is true. … In this case, I expressly and vehemently denied the allegations made against me, and continue to do so. My office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation.”
Conyers originally said Tuesday morning that he knew nothing of the claims, according to the Associated Press. He told the AP that he had “been looking at these things with amazement” in reference to recent sexual harassment allegations against lawmakers. BuzzFeed responded that a “person involved in the case” said the complaints reached the point in the process in which Conyers became aware of their existence.
In a later statement, a Conyers spokesperson explained the congressman’s response to the AP by saying “Conyers was under the impression the reporter was speaking of recent allegations of which he was unaware and denied.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the original Buzzfeed report “extremely troubling” and said in a statement “people who work in the House deserve and are entitled to a workplace without harassment or discrimination.” Ryan said he asked last month for a “review of all policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and discrimination.”
BuzzFeed’s report on the allegations against Conyers included a former employee who accused Conyers of firing her when she refused his advances. These allegations are contained in a 2015 wrongful dismissal complaint.
Documents from the complaint obtained by BuzzFeed News include four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former staff members who allege that Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sexual favors, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public. Four people involved with the case verified the documents are authentic.
The female staffers allege that Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, indicated that “the performing of personal service or favors” would advance their careers or lead to increased pay.
The woman who says she was fired for refusing Conyers’ advances filed her complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014, alleging that Conyers asked her for sexual favors repeatedly and would frequently request that she join him in a hotel room. She alleged he asked her to work from his room and then told her to touch his genitals, and that another time he allegedly told her to stay in his room and “cuddle up with me and caress me before you go,” according to BuzzFeed. A settlement was reached in 2015, and Conyers’ office—through a taxpayer funded budget—payed the woman more than $27,000 over three months. Buzzfeed reported that Conyers did not admit guilt as part of the settlement, and he did not respond to BuzzFeed’s request for comment.
BuzzFeed’s story also drew attention to the process by which congressional employees report sexual harassment, noting that staffers might have to continue to work with or under their harassers for months, and that victims must pay for representation but accused harassers, who are represented by the House’s counsel, do not. The unnamed former employee told BuzzFeed she felt that the process, which involves counseling, mediation, a waiting period, and a confidentiality agreement, had made her feel she had no option but to settle and stay quiet about the allegations.
In its report, BuzzFeed says it obtained the documents from Mike Cernovich, the mens’ rights activist, troll, and right-wing conspiracy theorist who promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which eventually led to a man shooting up a pizza joint in Washington D.C. BuzzFeed then independently verified the authenticity of the documents.