DETROIT — Facing a rising chorus of voices demanding he step down because of sexual harassment claims, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., on Tuesday retired from the seat he has held for more than five decades, a swift and crushing fall from grace for a civil rights icon and the longest-serving active member of Congress.
Saying he was finalizing his plans for retirement, Conyers, D-Mich., added he would endorse his son, John Conyers III, to replace him in Congress, potentially setting up a fight between him and his cousin, state Sen. Ian Conyers, in a special election to be called by the governor.
In his statement on the Mildred Gaddis Show on WPZR-FM in Detroit on Tuesday morning, Conyers did not describe it as a resignation but said his decision was immediate, suggesting the difference may be little. His lawyer, Arnold Reed, also confirmed that Conyers was leaving the seat as of Tuesday.
"My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This too shall pass. ... My legacy will continue through my children," Conyers told Gaddis. "I am retiring today and I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the ... incredible, undiminished support I've received across the years from my supporters not only from my district but across the country as well."
As for the accusations against him, Conyers said, "They're not accurate, they're not true and they're something I can't explain where they came from."
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, read a statement from Conyers on the floor of the House about 11 a.m. saying he had notified House Speaker Paul Ryan, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder of his decision. In it, he said that with the accusations against him, "I recognize that ... due process will be denied to me."
Snyder's office said it had not heard yet from Conyers as of just before noon, despite the statement read on the House floor.
He will probably receive a yearly pension of about $139,200 — compared with his current pay of $174,000 a year. Between a congressional package and Social Security, Conyers could make more than $230,000 a year, but for rules limiting pension to no more than 80% of current pay. In addition, Conyers will be able to maintain coverage through exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act — as other members of Congress do — with the federal government picking up about 72% of the cost.
Conyers, 88, made his decision to quit Congress two weeks after an article on BuzzFeed.com detailed a secret settlement of more than $27,000 with a former staffer who accused him of making sexual advances toward her and paying her out of funds from his taxpayer-supported office.
Within days, several other women had come forward with accusations against Conyers, who, despite his denials that he harassed anyone, saw House leaders and members of his own party abandon him, with three of the four Democrats in the Michigan delegation calling for him to resign last Thursday.
The House Ethics Committee — with authority to recommend any action from none to censure or expulsion — had launched an investigation against Conyers.
Within moments of Conyers' statement Tuesday morning, Capitol Hill began to react, with U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who replaced him as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee only a week ago in the wake of the allegations, saying, "I am saddened that his service to our nation has had to end under these circumstances."
In addition to Marion Brown, the staffer who received the settlement, at least six other women claimed they either experienced or saw him touching and rubbing women in his office, making sexual advances toward them or making inappropriate remarks. The most recent, Elisa Grubbs, made accusations against Conyers on Monday night, saying in a statement that Conyers put his hand up her skirt at a church, among other allegations.
Among the others, one filed a lawsuit against him early this year and then withdrew it, saying she didn't want to hurt Conyers' reputation. Another woman, Washington lawyer Melanie Sloan, also told the Detroit Free Press last month that Conyers had verbally mistreated her, forced her to babysit his children and, on one occasion, showed up at a meeting with her at his office in his underwear — though she didn't consider it sexual harassment.
As late as Tuesday morning, there were reports that Conyers would fight on, choosing to remain in office until the end of his current term and then retire in early 2019. Those reports turned out to be false.
Brown's attorney, Lisa Bloom, said she would "continue to push for a full, open Ethics Committee hearing so that Marion Brown’s important and disturbing sexual harassment story, her corroborating witnesses, and the several other sexual harassment accusers may be heard."
The Ethics Committee, however, will no longer have jurisdiction over Conyers once he leaves office, which is presumably Tuesday, most likely ending the investigation.
From accusation to retirement, Conyers' colleagues in Congress went from being warily supportive, urging caution while an investigation by the House Ethics Committee was completed to issuing outright calls for his resignation, even from at least one fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped to create in 1971.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is the third-ranking Democrat in the House and has been a colleague of Conyers' on the Congressional Black Caucus since 1993, called for him to resign Thursday shortly after similar calls by Ryan and Pelosi.
More than 200 supporters, including some of Detroit's most influential political, religious and civil rights leaders, gathered in Detroit on Monday to reiterate that Conyers should get the same due process rights as any other member of Congress and President Trump who also are currently accused of sexual harassment.
But the pressure on Conyers was apparently too great.
Less than week after the claims first surfaced, with allegations swirling not only over the harassment claims but his use of taxpayer funds to pay at least one settlement, he abruptly stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, a position he had held for more than two decades.
Then, with media reports that some members of the caucus were privately urging him to resign — he suddenly quit Washington, missing several votes last week, including one mandating sexual harassment training for members, as he headed back to Detroit and his family.
On Wednesday night he was hospitalized, his lawyer saying he believed it was stress-related. Then came the louder calls for him to resign, which finally culminated with the accusations —- many of them graphic and involving him groping or asking staffers for sex — ending Conyers' storied career.
It was a remarkable 53-year-run during which Conyers, the son of a well-known labor lawyer in Detroit, compiled a near-record legacy of civil rights activism, longevity and advocacy for the poor and underprivileged.
He retires with the sixth-longest tenure in congressional history.
A long record of fighting for civil rights and social justice
Conyers was born in Detroit. After a tour of duty with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Conyers returned home to bachelor's and law degrees from Wayne State University.
His law practice and work in the auto plants in Detroit led him to the office of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., where he worked as a legislative assistant for three years. But by 1964, at the age of 35, Conyers went after a seat of his own in Congress, winning the first of 27 general elections and serving portions of Detroit and some surrounding Wayne County suburbs for the next five decades.
He may not have had many bills that carried his name — only 26 of the 712 bills he has introduced have become law, according to the Library of Congress — but he fought for issues of civil rights and social justice, including seeking reparations for the descendants of African-American slaves, modifying the mandatory sentences for those convicted of non-violent drug crimes, defending assaults on the Voting Rights Act, reforming laws that put juvenile offenders in prison for life and calling for investigations into police brutality of African-American men.
In the thick of the civil rights battles, Conyers walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the movement in Selma, Ala., to bring equal voting rights to blacks.
He burnished his civil rights record even more by hiring icon Rosa Parks after she moved from Alabama to Detroit. The secretary and receptionist job in Conyers' Detroit office was a job she held until her retirement in 1988.
Denying the sexual harassment allegations
Conyers continued to refute the allegations against him, admitting the settlement with Brown, but denying her claims of sexual harassment. He also denied the claims the other former staffers made against him and enjoyed the support of a dozen former employees who signed a letter to defend their boss.
During his time in office, which he won with huge margins every two years like clockwork, Conyers was considered one of the most liberal members of Congress, with a 100% rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.
The conservative Freedom Works gave him a 15% rating, while the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity give him ratings of 8% and 6%, respectively.
Conyers, however, had already come under scrutiny twice from the House Ethics Committee in Congress for possible transgressions in his office.