WASHINGTON — A lawyer who formerly worked for U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and later ran an ethics watchdog group in the nation’s capital confirmed for the Free Press on Thursday that Conyers verbally abused her, criticized her appearance and once showed up to a meeting in his underwear.
Melanie Sloan, a well-known Washington lawyer who for three years in the 1990s worked as Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee, where Conyers remains the ranking Democrat, told the Detroit Free Press that Conyers constantly berated her, screaming at her and firing her and then rehiring her several times.
She said he criticized her for not wearing stockings on at least one occasion. On another, she said he ordered her backstage from a committee field hearing on crime she had organized in New York City to babysit one of his children. Sloan made clear that she did not feel she had ever been sexually harassed, but that she felt “mistreated by this guy.”
“I’m no shrinking violet,” said Sloan, who went on to become the executive director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and later to open Triumph Strategy, a public affairs firm specializing in crisis response. “His constant stream of abuse was difficult to handle and it was certainly damaging to my self-respect and self-esteem.”
“It made me increasingly anxious and depressed about going to work every day. And there was no way to fix it. There was no mechanism I could use, no person I could go to,” she said.
Smeared as unstable
Sloan said that she approached several people, including committee staff, a reporter, and a high-ranking member of then-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt’s staff about Conyers’ behavior but was told nothing could be done. She also said that on occasion she had been described to someone as “mentally unstable” for making the claims.
Sloan came forward, she said, because a Washington Post reporter contacted her about the recently revealed allegations against Conyers that he sexually harassed female members of his staff, rubbing and touching them inappropriately and making sexual advances. Conyers, 88, has denied all the allegations and on Wednesday, his lawyer, Arnold Reed of Southfield, told CNN that Conyers has no plans to resign even with an Ethics Committee investigation into his behavior under way.
Sloan — who becomes the first former employee of Conyers to publicly allege misbehavior by the congressman, a civil rights legend and longtime advocate for the poor and underprivileged — said her first inclination was to talk without using her name.
“Then I thought, ‘This is what’s wrong in Washington. No one will ever say anything publicly,’ ” she said, noting the widespread rumors of misconduct across the nation’s capital and a system that encourages people who are abused to stay quiet for fear of hurting their careers by not appearing loyal to people in power.
Sloan said she also decided to talk because some of what happened to her was consistent with the allegations against Conyers, specifically that he asked members of his staff — whose salaries are paid by taxpayers — to babysit. In 2003, the Free Press first reported on similar complaints among other employees in Conyers’ office. A follow-up Ethics Committee report was ultimately issued with Conyers — who continued to deny the accusations — eventually reaching a deal to ensure staff knew where their responsibilities began and ended.
"No plans to resign"
In a statement released Thursday, Reed said his client maintains his innocence, has no plans to resign and will cooperate if the House decides to investigate. He said he plans to hold a news conference after the holiday "to address the allegations, which are without merit."
"Congressman Conyers has no plans to resign," Reed said. "He intends to cooperate with the House should they determine further investigation is warranted."
Reed told the Post his client did nothing inappropriate to Sloan. In his statement to CNN on Wednesday, Reed said, his client is taking the allegations seriously but that "If everybody that was facing 'allegations' — including the president, members of the House and Senate — resigned, we'd have a lot of unemployed people walking around."
The controversy around Conyers erupted Monday night as the website Buzzfeed published affidavits from four former female employees of Conyers and a sexual harassment complaint by one of them that alleged Conyers touched and rubbed women in his office, made sexual advances against them and otherwise acted inappropriately.
While Conyers has expressly denied the allegations, he acknowledged that he settled the complaint for more than $27,000 in funds from his office. That secret settlement, however, also expressly denied that any of the allegations against Conyers were true and he characterized the payment as being for more of a “severance period” than to resolve any claims against him.
The House Ethics Committee is also looking at whether the use of office funds to settle the claim was justified. None of the women have been publicly named.
On Tuesday, the Free Press also reported on a lawsuit filed earlier this year by another Conyers’ staffer claiming sexual harassment, though she quickly withdrew the lawsuit after a judge refused to seal it, saying she didn’t want to hurt Conyers’ reputation.
Lots of girlfriends
Sloan told the Free Press that she never saw any inappropriate sexual touching but that Conyers — who is the longest-serving active member of Congress, having been elected in 1964 — seemed to have a lot of what she characterized as girlfriends around. Conyers has been married to his wife, Monica, a former Detroit City Council member who did prison time for bribery and other corruption charges, since 1990.
Sloan said that since she was not on Conyers’ personal staff but on the committee staff — which had different offices — she couldn’t verify or deny those other claims.
But she said that on one occasion, she was called to Conyers’ office in the Rayburn House Office building for a meeting and, when she got there, he was in his underwear.
“He was just walking around in his office, not dressed,” she said. “He wasn’t doing it to hit on me. It was more like he could do what he wanted. I was quite shocked by it and left quickly.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have been largely unanimous in calling for an Ethics investigation into Conyers’ behavior, which he has said he will cooperate with. But on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York became the first Democratic member of Congress to call the allegations against Conyers “as credible as they’re repulsive” and say he should resign.