Sexual misconduct comes in many forms and ranges widely in severity. As the floodgates opened by Harvey Weinstein’s accusers seem to get wider every day, it may be time to set a line that, once crossed, results in politicians stepping down. Based upon trends, we should expect more accusations to come to light soon.
The latest (for now) is Michigan Rep. John Conyers. The 25-term Democrat has been in the House of Representatives longer than anyone. He was accused of firing an employee who would not “succumb to sexual advances” and settled the complaint in 2015 for just over $27,000 in “pay.” Rather than distribute it in one lump sum, they had the employee stay on staff and receive paychecks for three months even though she was not reporting to work.
A story from Buzzfeed yesterday detailed his alleged crimes and the despicable way his office handled the situations.
In another incident, the former employee alleged the congressman insisted she stay in his room while they traveled together for a fundraising event. When she told him that she would not stay with him, she alleged he told her to “just cuddle up with me and caress me before you go.”
“Rep. Conyers strongly postulated that the performing of personal service or favors would be looked upon favorably and lead to salary increases or promotions,” the former employee said in the documents.
Did he cross the line from a professional perspective? Yes. Does that mean he should step down? To me, he must, but here’s the problem. What’s the line? Is it always arbitrary and case-by-case or do we set a limit? Is that limit purely a no-tolerance policy whereby any public servant caught or credibly accused must step down whether it’s harassment, assault, or anywhere in between?
In the private sector, it should be case-by-case, industry-by-industry, and even company-by-company. How Hollywood handles these situations can differ greatly from how other industries do, but government in general and elected officials in particular may need to be handled more systematically. If so, where do we draw the line?
Should it include actions prior to public service? Until the 2nd accuser came forward against Al Franken, he was being asked to step down by many based upon his actions as a comedian before he went to Capitol Hill. New accuser aside, were his alleged actions of sexual misconduct from before he joined the Senate enough to force him out?
Another criterion that must be addressed is the credibility of the reports. Since most accusations so far have not yielded criminal investigations or testimonies in court, the burden of proof seems to be lower. If a story checks out as being possible, meaning there’s evidence of opportunity, and the accusations made by the victims sound believable, do we act swiftly and give a specific period of time for the accused to refute the claims or step down?
Frankly, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but they need to be asked. We should be holding our representatives to higher standards. To do that, we need standards. Right now, it seems like accusations are made and the debate starts up again about whether or not a politician needs to resign. At the rate we’re going, this is going to be a long winter in Washington DC.