Will House Ethics Committee Do Anything About Rep. John Conyers Severance Scam?

Congressman John Conyers is the subject of a recent review of his conduct by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a semi-independent organization charged with investigating misconduct by members of Congress and their staff. The Office has referred Conyers’ case to the House Ethics Committee.

In their initial report, the OCE found that there was “strong evidence” that Representative Conyers had continued to pay his Chief of Staff, after she had left his office, between April and August of last year.

According to NLPC President Peter Flaherty, “It is an open question whether the Ethics Committee will do anything about Conyers, whose corruption now spans decades. The Committee more often functions as a cover-up committee. Its whitewashes seem to be just one more service that the House leadership offers incumbents.”

According to the report, Conyers told the House Payroll Office that his Chief of Staff, Cynthia Martin, would be on “leave without pay” beginning on April 4th for a period of three months. However, on April 20th, Conyers changed this to a period of two weeks, from April 5th to April 19th, allowing Martin to receive her pay for that month ($13,333.33). In June, the Office of Congressional Ethics attempted to contact Martin at Representative Conyers’ office, only to be told she no longer worked there.

Yet, during that time, Conyers filed two more payment authorizations for his absent Chief of Staff, one in August and one in October, before finally terminating her employment on October 25th, 2016. When informed that the Office of Congressional Ethics would be conducting a review of the incident, Representative Conyers refused to cooperate. As a result of this refusal, the OCE formally recommended that the House Ethics Committee issue a subpoena so that they could continue to investigate.

According to House Rule 23, “[a] Member…of the House may not retain an employee who does not perform duties for the offices of the employing authority commensurate with the compensation such employee receives.” If the allegations against Representative Conyers are true, Ms. Martin would have collected approximately $53,000 in compensation for work that she did not do.

Earler that same year, in an apparently unrelated case, a customer of the Federal Congressional Credit Union mistakenly wired a total of $16,500 into Martin’s account. When she was initially confronted, investigators claimed that Martin refused to return the money, and later charged her with failure to return stolen property. Martin pled guilty to the charges last year.

In his official response to the allegations that he had paid his Chief of Staff while she was not working, Representative Conyers denied wrongdoing and stated that the payments to Ms. Martin constituted severance payments. However, as the Office of Congressional Ethics pointed out in their initial report, the House Ethics Manual states that “Compensation [for House employees] may be received only for duties performed within the preceding month,” which would implicitly prohibit severance pay.

The Ethics Committee is chaired by Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN). The other Republicans are Reps. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Kenny Marchant of Texas and Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

Flaherty concluded, “The House Ethics Committee is an embarrassment. It could be a powerful vehicle for helping to drain the swamp. As far as I know, the Committee has done nothing about the Awan brothers, who worked for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and a score of other members. The House IT Scandal could be one of the biggest ever to hit Congress. I hope that it is not too much to expect for the Committee to crack down on routine corruption like that practiced by Conyers.”

Jamie Gregora is NLPC’s Washington Reporter.