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Rep. John Conyers said he doesn't want the accusations against him to undermine his colleagues, but is stepping down reluctantly. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

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WASHINGTON – Rep. John Conyers is stepping down from his top spot on the House Judiciary Committee as a congressional ethics panel probes sexual harassment allegations against the Michigan Democrat. 

Conyers again denied the harassment allegations in a statement released Sunday but said he has requested to step down as the Judiciary Committee's ranking member. 

"To be clear, I would like very much to remain as ranking member," he said in a statement. "There is still much work to be done on core concerns like securing civil rights, enacting meaningful criminal justice reforms, and protecting access to the ballot box. ... But 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."

Conyers, 88, has denied harassing an employee who received a 2015 settlement of more than $27,000 from his office funds. He did confirm the settlement, saying last week that his "office resolved the allegations — with an express denial of liability — in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation. That should not be lost in the narrative."

The House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into the allegations. 

After the report of the settlement was published last week, a second woman accused the congressman of harassing her while she worked was his aide. Melanie Sloan said that he verbally abused her, criticized her appearance and once showed up to a meeting in his underwear.

In response to Conyers' decision to step aside, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that "zero tolerance means consequences." 

"We must ensure the Congress has a climate of dignity and respect with zero tolerance for sexual harassment," the California Democrat said in a statement. 

Conyers has long served on the powerful panel, including a stint as its chairman from 2007 to 2011.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the second most senior Democrat on the committee, said his party's work on the panel must move forward.

"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," Nadler said in a statement. "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."

The announcements come after Pelosi insisted during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press that Conyers deserves due process as the House Ethics Committee probes sexual harassment allegations against the congressman and his use of office funds to settle one case.

"John Conyers is an icon in our country," she said. "He has done a great deal to protect women. ... The fact is, as John reviews his case — which he knows, which I don't — I believe he will do the right thing."

But when asked whether the "right thing" meant the Michigan Democrat's resignation, Pelosi dodged the question.

"He will do the right thing in terms of what he knows about his situation," Pelosi replied. "That he's entitled to due process. But women are entitled to due process as well."

Pelosi did not say whether she believed Conyers' accusers, saying that it was up to the Ethics Committee to review the cases.

"I don't know who they are," she said.

Attorney Lisa Bloom said Sunday that she represents the woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint in 2014. Her client "was forced" to sign a confidentiality agreement when she received the settlement, Bloom said. 

"We call upon Mr. Conyers and the Office of Compliance to release my client from her confidentiality agreement so that she may have a voice to tell her own story," Bloom said in a statement. "Basic fairness and decency dictate that if Mr. Conyers can speak publicly about the matter, the woman should be free to do so as well."

The accusations against Conyers surfaced as more women have come forward to charge sexual misconduct against men in power. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is also facing allegations that he touched women inappropriately. 

Anita Hill — the lawyer who famously told Congress in 1991 that her then-boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her after he was nominated to the Supreme Court — also discussed on the NBC show how more women were opening up about their experiences.

"I can't say I was entirely surprised about the #MeToo allegations and the stories that came out of #MeToo," she said. 

She noted that Washington had been unable to "lead on this issue" when she testified about Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice.

"We have made progress, but unfortunately 26 years ago, Washington wasn’t ready to lead on this issue, and I’m afraid even today Washington cannot lead the country on this issue," she said.

More: New Rep. John Conyers accuser: He showed up to a meeting in his underwear

More: Fellow House Democrat calls for Conyers to resign

More: Conyers expulsion would be rarity for House Ethics Committee

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