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Conyers’ ethical problems

John Conyers file photo.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
John Conyers file photo.

The world was a far different place half a century ago, when Detroit was reeling after the nation’s most devastating urban riots. Michigan was a far richer state than it is now. It usually wasn’t hard to get a job on the line, assembling Pontiacs or Oldsmobiles.

Virtually nobody drove Hondas or Datsuns, which is what Nissans were then called. Mitt Romney’s father was governor, though Mitt himself was too young to vote. Michigan had more clout in Washington, and five more members of Congress than it does now.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Everyone then serving in Congress is now dead or long since retired, with one exception – John Conyers, who was in Congress then, and still is now, at age 88, with apparently no plans to retire, possibly ever. Conyers has had a long and storied career.

He worked in the civil rights movement with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and was the member of Congress most responsible for making King’s birthday a federal holiday. He has justly called the nation’s attention to that most American of all art forms, jazz.

There’s no doubt that the world is a better place for Conyers’ having lived in it. But the currently longest-serving member of Congress is now under investigation for ethical problems. In March of last year, his longtime chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property. The next month, she was fired.

But Conyers authorized her remaining on the federal payroll till nearly the end of August, at more than $13,000 a month, paid by the tax payers, when she was apparently doing no work. When the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics attempted to investigate, they say Conyers refused to cooperate with them in any way whatsoever.

The board then voted unanimously to ask the ethics panel to continue looking into this case. After that, an attorney for Conyers sent a letter claiming this was just a case of someone receiving their normal severance and vacation pay. Congressmen on the committee then said they needed more time to review the report, which is very clear and only seven pages long.

I have no idea how this will turn out, though I suspect that lots of congressmen would like this all swept under the rug. I also know what many other reporters know. Conyers’s offices have long been a chaotic mess. He’s gotten in trouble before for using staff improperly.

Eleven years ago, a former staffer complained she was ordered to live in Conyers home for six weeks and take care of his children while the congressman’s wife was in law school.

His payroll management has been so erratic that the office would sometimes overspend its maximum budget for the year, and staffers had to temporarily be let go.

There are many other stories, some far more lurid. But the current ethics committee is only allowed to look into things that have happened in the last nine years.

And somehow Conyers has been Teflon. Three years ago, his career seemed over when his staffers failed to collect enough legitimate signatures to get him on the primary ballot for Congress. But a sympathetic federal judge put him on anyway. John Conyers will be almost 90 when his current term ends. Does it really make sense for him to stay any longer?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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