Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Culture of John Conyers: Some staffers call work atmosphere disturbing; others praise him

WASHINGTON – If there is anything many former staff members of U.S. Rep. John Conyers agree upon, it is that even into his 70s and 80s, the Detroit Democrat — a civil rights legend — didn’t lack for female attention.
There were “girlfriends” some say, women, both young and mature, who wanted to take care of him, hang on his arm, climb into the back of a car with him as he left an event. There were those who got special treatment, say others. Those who just wanted to be around. Those who thought he was a “rock star.”
“They wanted to flirt with him,” said TaMorie Sanders, who was Conyers’ Washington, D.C., office manager in the early 2000s. At times, she said, the flirting got so bad she had to stand between the congressman and some woman who wanted his attention, just to keep him on schedule.
Conyers now finds himself accused of far more than flirting, with a series of women raising specific and disturbing accusations of harassment, of sexual advances, of troubling remarks and behavior over the years. A House Ethics Committee investigation has been launched. A female colleague, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on Friday likened his conduct to that of a "predator."
But while not passing judgment on the merits of the claims made against him so far, several former staffers — from among the more than two dozen that the Free Press contacted or attempted to contact in recent days — say the portrait of Conyers that emerges from the accusations is often at odds with the man they believe they know, that they never saw his behavior stray into what they considered harassment.
“It’s hard to believe he harassed anyone,” said Sanders, who has known Conyers for decades and said he helped her, encouraging her to get her law degree, steering her to free food at receptions when she was a struggling law student. “He’s a good man.”

At 88, Conyers, a civil rights legend, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the longest-serving active member in Congress, stands on the precipice of being forced from the office he has held since 1965 by claims from at least six former female employees that he sexually or otherwise harassed them or others, making sexual advances, rubbing or groping them, showing up to meetings in his underwear. 
They come as the political world, along with the entertainment and media worlds, is becoming consumed by allegations of sexual harassment with Conyers, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and others battling claims even as women in Congress press for changes to a byzantine system that keeps claims under wraps and allows settlements paid for by taxpayers.
On Friday, news reports out of Washington noted that another member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, settled a sexual harassment claim brought against him by his former communications director, for $84,000.
In the case of Conyers, the sheer number of accusations against him carry weight. 
Marion Brown, a former district director, accused Conyers of taking her to his hotel room in 2005 and telling her to touch his genitals or find a woman who would; of insisting she stay in his room with him on other occasions; of creating a work environment where a mostly female staff competed against each other and were expected to babysit or have his laundry done or other personal tasks. She says she was fired in 2014 — when Conyers would have been 85 — after years of refusing his sexual advances; that he had lost interest in her being his “side piece.” 
She ended up signing a nondisclosure agreement and a settlement for more than $27,000 — a document in which Conyers expressly denied her claims. 
While Brown is speaking out, she is hardly the only one who has accused Conyers: 
  • In affidavits supporting Brown's claims received and vetted by the website, two other former employees said Conyers rubbed parts of women’s bodies in sexually suggestive ways and had a relationship with someone in his office.
  • In a lawsuit filed earlier this year — and quickly withdrawn when a judge wouldn’t seal it — another woman accused him of inappropriate comments and touches, blowing kisses at her in public and kissing her forehead. She pulled the lawsuit, however, saying she didn't want to hurt Conyers' reputation.
  • Melanie Sloan, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who worked for Conyers in the '90s, said he berated her, hiring and firing her several times; criticized her for not wearing stockings; made her babysit his children. And while she said she never felt sexually harassed, she said Conyers called her to a meeting once in his office where he was in his underwear.
  • And Deanna Maher, who worked for him from 1997 to 2005 in Michigan and had raised other complaints against him with the Free Press more than a decade ago, came out last week to claim Conyers stripped in front of her after inviting her to stay in his Washington suite and on two other occasions groped her. 
“I needed money to live on,” Maher told CNN last week. “It’s awful, you're so vulnerable and you're willing to say. 'OK, OK.' The person says jump, you say how high."
The accusations led House Speaker Paul Ryan, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and three of the four other Democrats in Michigan’s congressional delegation last week to call for Conyers — who abandoned Washington for Detroit last week despite Congress being in session and is now hospitalized with unknown symptoms — to resign.
So far, he has resisted, denying all the claims against him. 
But even with the drumbeat of calls for his resignation getting louder, there are those who worked for him who say — while not disputing the claims made by the women who have come forward — that those accusations don’t entirely comport with their experience and don’t form a complete picture of the congressman’s office and his behavior.
“It was constantly women approaching him,” said one woman, a staff veteran who no longer works for the congressman and spoke to the Free Press anonymously because of the sensitivity of the accusations against him. “He was treated like a rock star.”
The woman said there was “questionable” behavior in the office — his flying women to Washington or Detroit so he could see them, rumored relationships with women in his employ, and one instance where she opened a door and said she saw Conyers and another employee kissing.
To her, none of it rose to a level of what she would describe as sexual harassment, believing it was consensual, even though others might interpret any kind of involvement between Conyers and his staff as potential harassment.
“He didn’t have to approach them,” she said about the women who made their way to Conyers. “They fought to get into his face.” 
“He was susceptible to it. That’s probably where he was guilty.”
Another woman who worked for Conyers and who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was open knowledge that he had “relationships” but that in terms of sexual advances from the congressman, she never experienced it — and had experienced far worse behavior on Capitol Hill, including from one member of Congress she said who asked her, the first time he met her, to go on vacation with him.
Secret tales of sexual liaisons and harassment by people in power toward staff and others have been rampant in Washington for decades but have only recently started to come into the open, as women — including some members of Congress themselves — have talked about the groping, the advances, they've had to fend off. 
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, told the Free Press about a "prominent, historical figure" whom she will not name, trying to force his hand between her legs at a function in the U.S. Capitol decades ago when she worked for General Motors and a U.S. senator making frequent advances. Speier, meanwhile, has discussed how when she was a staffer in the 1970s, another top-ranking staffer forcibly kissed her. 
There are 110 women in the current Congress — 20% of the total — a record number. 
The woman who worked in Conyers' office said she had been propositioned on numerous occasions and recognized sexual harassment when she saw it. Not with Conyers, who, the worst thing he did to her, she said, was call her "honey."
But she said she saw lots of people — women and men — “who tried to get closer to him, to get closer to power.”
“I don’t know that I saw a whole lot that was unique to John Conyers (in his office),” she added.
If anything, said another woman, the problems with other women in the office who were in Conyers’ personal favor had it easier than those who were seen differently. 
“His office was a really strange place to be,” she said. “You could be a worker bee, or you could be a girlfriend bee. If you were a worker bee, you got lots of work. Girlfriend bees didn’t have to do anything.”
But this woman, too, while criticizing Conyers’ office practices — and, again, not questioning the accuracy of the claims against him but only relating her experience —said she never experienced or saw any overt sexual advances in terms of comments or groping.
“He’s not a stupid man,” she said, adding that “rampant” solicitations on Capitol Hill often take the form of opaque invitations and remarks that can later be denied or explained away with an excuse. “Nobody’s that stupid.” 
On Friday, as he continued to try to knock down the allegations against Conyers —including that the $27,000 settlement he paid Brown was improper because it came from his taxpayer-backed office funds — lawyer Arnold Reed posted on Twitter a signed statement from a former worker, Shawn Campbell, who said he worked with Brown in the congressman’s office and that Brown never expressed any concern about being harassed.
He also said that Brown urged Conyers to give her daughter — Nailah Ellis-Brown, now the CEO and founder of Ellis Island Tropical Tea in Detroit — a job, which he did. Contacted by the Free Press on Friday, Ellis-Brown said her mother didn’t ask Conyers to give her a job — that Conyers contacted her directly. 
Reed, Conyers' lawyer, said it begged the question, though, "Why do you bring your daughter into an environment that’s hostile?" Ellis-Brown said she didn't have time to speak further about the claims, other than to say she supports the accusations made by her mother. 
Beyond those claims, however, there seemed to be widespread acceptance that the lines between Conyers’ personal habits and responsibilities sometimes merged with those of the office in ways many believed were unacceptable and — as the Ethics Committee had previously found — disallowed.
"I felt really abused by this guy. I felt like I was mistreated by this guy," said Sloan, who said she was "furious" when Conyers pulled her out of a field hearing in the 1990s she had organized to babysit one of his children. 
Others also said they were asked to babysit the Conyers’ children. More than a decade ago, the House Ethics Committee investigated those complaints, made by Maher and others, which Conyers denied. Eventually, a settlement was reached in which staff was to be trained on where their professional responsibilities began and ended.
But some women who worked for Conyers said there were still times when staff interacted with the Conyers kids, not because they were ordered to do so, but because their father was always so busy. Conyers and his wife, Monica — who is more than 30 years younger than him and whom he married in 1990 — have two children, John III and Carl, now grown.
Others said Conyers abused the staff's time when it came to his kids.
"He thought, 'You pick up the kids. I'm busy,' " said one woman who worked in his office. " 'What I'm doing is important.' " 
Meanwhile, several women acknowledged that it wasn’t unusual to see Conyers in his underwear — as Sloan described to the Free Press — but that it was more a function of his practically living in his office, which had a bathroom, and not being suggestive or harassing. 
“He worked all the time. He’d work and go to sleep at his desk,” said Sanders. “He might be in his shorts (when you saw him) but he had shaving cream on him too. … This is a working man.”
Some people who worked for him complained more — as one woman put it — of a culture of “mismanagement” and “incompetence” in the running of the office, both in Washington and in Detroit. 
“I never personally witnessed or experienced any sexual abuse or misbehavior,” said Patricia Hartig, a former chief of staff and district director for Conyers. “I spent a lot of time with him. Everything was professional.”
But she said that there were people on staff — she didn’t name them — who took advantage of Conyers’ “kindness” and were allowed to remain working for him even though they weren’t “up to par.” 
“I do think he was taken advantage of by many female staff,” she said. Again, she said she was not disputing the claims that have been made against him — only describing her experience and that she didn't see it going on herself.
Jared Hautamaki, a former legislative assistant to Conyers in Washington from 1999-2004 and an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency, did question the claims, however, saying, “I’ve been talking to other staffers, and we are of the unanimous opinion that it’s a bunch of BS.”
He said Maher, in particular, was a staffer who took advantage of what was sometimes a management vacuum in the office, recalling an incident in which he and other staff were “flabbergasted” when business cards arrived for Maher that gave her the title “district chief of staff” in Conyers’ Downriver office — a title Hautamaki said Maher never held.
Maher confirmed Friday that business cards arrived with her name and "chief of staff," but said she didn't order business cards and had nothing to do with the mistake. She said Conyers gave her the title "deputy chief of staff" in the early 2000s when he sent her to run his Downriver office in Southgate.
Hautamaki said working for Conyers was one of the best experiences of his life, but confirmed there were management issues and sometimes a vacuum in leadership. He recalled a December 2002 incident in which office staff had to be temporarily laid off or shifted to campaign staff because there was no remaining office money to pay them.
Even as the accusations have continued to gather steam, former staffers have stepped up to defend Conyers. Shortly after the first word of Brown’s 2014 complaint was published by BuzzFeed on Nov. 20, a dozen former staffers issued a statement saying, “While we do not pass judgment on the specific allegations reported in the press or the women who brought them, our experiences with Mr. Conyers were quite different than the image of him being portrayed in the media."
They called him a gentleman, said he respected their opinions, called him "respectful."
Erica Morris Long, an Atlanta attorney who worked in the Clinton White House after working for Conyers, recently posted on Facebook that during her time in his office, Conyers “always treated me with the utmost professionalism and respect.”
In the end, however, it may be that the accusers and the serious allegations they have brought against Conyers — the specificity of the details, the number of them, and the apparently accepted fact by many who worked for and still defend him that Conyers seemed to always have women around him despite being married — will overwhelm the congressman and define his legacy, despite his insistent denials, despite counterclaims that those allegations don’t fit with what others saw or believed that they saw.
It may be that the truth of their experience with Conyers is far different than the experience of those who say he harassed him. 
But even if that's the case, some are prepared to forgive him.
“If you needed something from him, he gave it,” said Sanders, his former office manager. She added, “He may have made a mistake. But we’re all human.”

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