Some key members of the Congressional Black Caucus Tuesday accused House Speaker Paul Ryan of employing a double standard when he urged Rep. John Conyers to resign but didn’t do the same for Rep. Blake Farenthold, even though both paid settlements involving sexual harassment claims.
Hours after Conyers, D-Mich., announced his immediate retirement from the House of Representatives, Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former black caucus chair, suggested that Ryan’s responses to the Conyers and Farenthold situations had racial overtones.
"When it happens to one of us, we’re guilty until proven innocent," said Fudge, D-Ohio. "The same double-standard exists that our president uses for black people — we are guilty until proven innocent."
Ryan, R-Wis., said Conyers should "resign immediately" when it was revealed he paid $27,000 in public funds to settle a sexual harassment suit brought by a former staffer.
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The speaker didn’t make the same call for Farenthold, R-Texas, who reportedly used $84,000 from a little-known congressional account to settle a sexual harassment claim by a former staffer. Both Farenthold and Conyers settled the claims without admitting guilt. Farenthold said he would repay the money from his own funds.
House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber and a black caucus member, commended Conyers for stepping down and blasted Ryan of being "radio silent" on Farenthold.
"I’m a little bit interested in why the Speaker of the House called for his resignation and has been radio silent on Blake Farenthold, a settlement that was three times Conyers’ was ," Clyburn said. "He’s accused of the same thing Conyers was accused of…and the speaker has not said a word. What is the difference?"
AshLee Strong, a Ryan spokeswoman, said Tuesday that "the speaker has made it clear that any report of sexual harassment is deeply troubling, and those who feel mistreated or violated deserve to have their stories taken seriously."
She added that Farenthold’s case was reviewed by the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body, and it "voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint against the member."
Strong said, "We recently learned that taxpayer funds were used to settle the dispute and the speaker believed it was appropriate for the member to reimburse taxpayers for this payment out of his own pocket, which he had announced he will do."
Farenthold made that announcement in an interview with a Corpus Christi television station Monday, promising to "hand over a check" to Ryan to reimburse taxpayers for the settlement money.
"I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for this," Farenthold told KRIS television. "And I want to be able to talk about it and fix the system without having people say ‘Blake, you benefited from the system. You don’t have the right to talk about fixing it.’"
Meanwhile, Conyers, 88, announced in a Detroit radio interview Tuesday that he was retiring effective immediately after serving more than half a century in the House. Conyers was called the unofficial "dean of the House" and was its longest-serving member until his announcement.
"I am retiring today," he said. "And I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support — the incredible, undiminished support I’ve received across the years, not only in my district but across the country as well."
That support didn’t extend to House leadership in both parties. Ryan urged him to quit. So did the entire House Democratic leadership — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Clyburn.
The 49-member black caucus didn’t call for Conyers to step aside. Instead, CBC chair Cedric Richmond, D-La., said in a statement last week that "Any decision to resign from office before the ethics investigation is complete is John’s decision to make."
Still, several black caucus members said they were pleased with Conyers’s decision Tuesday.
"John Conyers is a great friend, he’s a great American, and I’m sure after consultation with his family he made the right decision," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., another former black caucus chair. "I would think had he continued in the House that would be a news story that would distract from our agenda, our Democratic agenda."
While Fudge and Clyburn forcefully suggested that Conyers was a victim of a double standard, Butterfield and other black caucus members demurred or disagreed.
"I don’t have a comment on that," Butterfield said.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said Conyers’ exit from Congress was a result of pressure and nothing more.
"I don’t think there’s a double standard because the circumstances are different with each individual," Hastings said. "I don’t see race as a factor in this. I regret very seriously that John is having to leave under these circumstances, but I don’t see it as don’t see it as any different than anyone else that had put in the same position."