The influential Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday stood behind Democratic Rep. John Conyers amid sexual-misconduct allegations, resignation calls from fellow party leaders and a bipartisan vote to end such behavior.
“We are not urging John to resign,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, the caucus leader, said after members discussed the issue in a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting and amid a House Ethics Committee investigation into Conyers’ alleged conduct.
“We think it’s a decision for him and his family and his constituents to make,” said Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat. “When in an elected office, it’s those people in his congressional district … and his family that will weigh in on what happens when the ethics investigation is going on.”
The comments represent a split with Democratic leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who despite initially defending Conyers is said to be pushing privately for his resignation.
Three allegations of sexual misconduct have now been made again Conyers, a Michigan Democratic and the longest-serving sitting House member.
The first surfaced last week, when BuzzFeed posted a story detailing a settlement with a former Conyers staffer who said the 88-year-old lawmaker sexually harassed her, then fired her after she rebuffed his advances.
The news website reported that Conyers’ office paid the woman more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015.
The ethics committee then announced that it had begun an investigation into Conyers, after receiving allegations of sexual harassment and age discrimination involving staff members and about the congressman using “official resources for impermissible personal purposes.”
A few days later, a second former staffer came forward with more claims of inappropriate behavior.
Melanie Sloan, a lawyer who worked with Conyers on the House Judiciary Committee, said she was called the congressman’s office to discuss an issue and found him “walking around in his underwear.”
Sloan worked on the committee in the 1990s, but it was not clear when the alleged incident occurred. She also claims Conyers often screamed at her, fired and re-hired her, criticized her for not wearing stockings and once even ordered her to baby-sit one of his children.
“I deny [all of] these allegations,” Conyers also said Sunday. “I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family.”
On Tuesday, The Detroit News reported that former staffer Deanna Maher alleges Conyers sexually harassed her, including inappropriate touching, in three incidents from 1997 to 1999. She became the second former Conyers staffer to go public with such accusations.
At a CBC meeting the same day, several members reportedly called for Conyers’ resignation.
Richmond said Wednesday that the allegations, if found to be true, are unacceptable and the CBC is relying on the ethics committee’s findings.
“All I know is one vehemently denies it, one is saying that it’s true. Ethic has to come down on the legal,” said Richmond, a lawyer. “If these allegations are true, then they are serious, they are disturbing, they are awful, because we just don’t stand for harassment in the workplace or anywhere else.”
Still, top CBC officials’ tentative support for Conyers at this stage comes as several congressional Democrats publicly suggest that he should resign.
“I would think he should,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon, said Wednesday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House’s No. 2 Democrat, later told MSNBC that Conyers should resign if the allegations are true.
Earlier this week, Reps. Kathleen Rice, of New York, and Pramila Jayapal, of Washington state, said they think Conyers should resign.
On Wednesday, the House approved a bipartisan measure requiring lawmakers and aides to take annual anti-harassment training, following a similar move by the Senate.
A few hours earlier, Richmond and fellow Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina, were criticized on social media for suggesting a different standard for members of Congress facing sexual harassment claims, compared with figures like NBC’s Matt Lauer or CBS’s Charlie Rose, who were fired almost immediately.
“Who elected them?” Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, asked reporters – suggesting elected lawmakers could not be let go so easily.
House Minority Leader Pelosi faced similar backlash Sunday when she told NBC that Conyers is an “icon” in efforts toward women’s equality, while also reserving judgement about the allegations until the ethics committee completes its review.
Within minutes of Conyers announcing he’d stepped down from the Judiciary committee, though, Pelosi released a statement that said: “Zero tolerance means consequences. As a woman and mother of four daughters, I particularly take any accusation of sexual harassment very seriously. … No matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.