Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Instead of protecting John Conyers, Nancy Pelosi should speak up for his accusers

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is on the wrong side of history on this one.
Marvin Joseph/Washington Post/File
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is on the wrong side of history on this one.

Let the woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Rep. John Conyers speak out and tell her story.

If Nancy Pelosi wants to be seen as a leader in this #MeToo moment in feminist history, that’s what she should be demanding. Instead, Pelosi is sticking to her old school, hyper-partisan role as House minority leader. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, she called Conyers “an icon” who “has done a great deal to protect women” and refused to say if she believes his accusers.

“I don’t know who they are. Do you? They have not come forward,” added Pelosi.

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At least in the case of one woman, there’s reason for reticence.

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Lisa Bloom, the lawyer representing one of Conyers’ accusers, said the woman was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement at the time the sexual harassment allegation was resolved. As first reported by Buzzfeed, the woman alleged she was fired because she refused sexual advances from the powerful Michigan Democrat. Her complaint ended with a $27,000 settlement paid out of Conyers’ office budget. In exchange for that, the woman agreed “she will not disseminate or publish or cause anyone else to disseminate or publish, in any manner, disparaging or defamatory remarks or comments adverse” to Conyers’ interests.

Now Bloom — making a comeback from the professional embarrassment of briefly advising Harvey Weinstein – is calling for her client to be released from that agreement. “Basic fairness and decency dictate that if Mr. Conyers can speak publicly about the matter, the woman should be free to do so as well,” said Bloom in a statement released on Sunday.

She’s right — especially when taxpayer money is being used to settle such claims.

In this post-Weinstein era, the political ground is shifting. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House is pushing for legislation that would require such claims to be handled in public. In the Senate, Kirstin Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, backs similar legislation.

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Gillibrand, who holds Hillary Clinton’s former seat, shocked fellow Democrats when she said Bill Clinton should have resigned after his affair with an intern made headlines during his presidency. For that, Gillibrand was called out as opportunistic and disloyal. Yet with her comments about Conyers, Pelosi comes off as out-of-touch, overly-partisan, and hypocritical.

In the same Sunday interview, Pelosi said Conyers deserved “due process,” and suggested the allegations against him are thin: “Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?” asked Pelosi. In Alabama, Roy Moore’s supporters are sowing similar doubts about the women who came forward to accuse the Republican senatorial candidate of molesting them 30 years ago, when they were teenagers, including one who said she was 14 at the time. And, like Pelosi defending Conyers, Moore’s supporters are also saying he deserves due process.

The charges are different in each case, but it’s still awkward for Democrats. How do you call out Moore — or President Trump, for that matter — for dismissing as liars the women who came forward with allegations of predatory sexual conduct, yet give Conyers cover as “an icon” whose accusers lack credibility? After Conyers announced that he will step down as the highest ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Pelosi issued a statement saying “zero tolerance means consequences.”

Losing a powerful committee position is a consequence. But the ultimate consequence would be letting the world hear Conyers’ accuser tell her own story in her own voice.

As Pelosi also said on “Meet the Press,” “I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible. It’s 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote . . . Something very transformative is happening. That is, women are saying, ‘Zero tolerance, no more, and we’re going to speak out on it.’ And this is so wholesome, so refreshing, so different.”

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Making sure that happens in Washington — whether the accused is a Democrat or a Republican — would be truly wholesome, refreshing, different, and transformative.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.