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Sexual harassment victims have the right to stay silent

Jack Lessenberry

Someone once told me you should leave any job about a year before people want you to. Well, as I speak these words, I have no idea how long Congressman John Conyers will be in office.

But I can tell you this: When he does leave, few will wish he had stayed longer. Half a century is probably more than long enough for any job, and Conyers has been there longer than that.

Now his career has been blighted by a cloud of scandal. Women have come forward to accuse Conyers of grossly inappropriate behavior, mainly sexual.

The congressman has indignantly denied any wrongdoing. But I want to disclose that I have some special knowledge in this case, and that it has had me thinking about the role of the press. There is another woman who reached a financial settlement with Conyers before Marion Brown, the woman who gave a graphic account on The Today Show yesterday.

I know that because she had become something of a friend over the years she worked in the congressman’s office. She was a supremely competent professional, unlike many there, and I learned to go to her first if I needed information. Over the years, we had lunch once or twice and talked about her career aspirations. Then, one day, she asked me if she could talk to me off the record, and told me that she was being sexually harassed, and wanted my advice.

I was honored she trusted me enough to confide in me. What she told me at the time had the ring of truth, and was even more bizarre than previous accounts. Initially, she wasn’t propositioned by the congressman, but was informed by another more senior female aide that she would be expected to provide certain services that she had no interest in providing.

Eventually, she said Conyers himself made his wishes plain, and she then either quit or was fired. She came close to filing a lawsuit, but at the last moment, reached a financial settlement.

I heard from her again when the charges against Conyers first surfaced. She was mildly panicked. She is a successful professional, and wants only to be left alone. But one of the other women who worked for Conyers had given her name to CNN, and she was being pestered by that network. She asked me whether she had to talk to them. Ironically, I have spent most of my life trying to get people to talk to the press, but in this case I told her no.

If she didn’t want to go public, she didn’t have to. There is a right to be let alone. From the standpoint of the public interest, enough other women have come forward.

She thanked me and sounded relieved. I don’t know if I was disloyal to the gods of journalism, but this time I decided to serve the gods of compassion instead.

I did encouraged her to go public five or six years ago, and she pointed out to me that others had gone to the House Ethics Committee and nothing had happened.

What I am sure about is that justice shouldn’t depend on whether an issue is part of the current media story of the week. And maybe that’s what needs to get fixed most of all.

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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