Shortly after Marion Brown’s account of sexual harassment toppled a powerful congressman last fall, she returned to Washington on a frigid afternoon to ask for support from the lawmakers who had lauded her as a hero.
Wearing a smartly tilted fur cap, she left her business cards with aides who, to her, looked two generations her junior. She hoped for a reference, a lead on a new job, a bit of advice. She left the Capitol feeling disappointed, although lawmakers told Roll Call they want to do all they can to help.
Brown, 62, who spent 11 years as a Detroit-based outreach director to former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr., is among a handful of former congressional employees to publicly disclose sexual harassment allegations in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Their stories attracted a surge of media attention and inspired bipartisan legislation that unanimously passed the House and is making its way to the Senate.
But the hoped-for reckoning in Congress has sputtered, and several of the alleged victims say the publicity has done little to diminish the toll on their careers and personal lives.
“People try to be as nice as they can, but I’m still feeling the backlash,” Brown said.
In the months after sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein inspired a national conversation about sexual harassment in American institutions, eight members of Congress — seven of them in the House — have either resigned or announced they will not seek re-election because of allegations of harassment or sexual misconduct. That number, though large by historical standards, pales compared to the dozens of accusations against powerful men in other industries.
Meanwhile, details of past allegations against members of Congress remain unclear. There are lingering questions about lawmakers’ ability, or willingness, to investigate their own colleagues. And calls for accountability have largely given way to attempts to improve working conditions for future employees.
Brown and other women who have come forward say all the attention has not improved their stalled careers or their sense of isolation — repercussions that they believe will continue to prevent other women from speaking up about mistreatment.
Lawmakers say they know it is tough for women in Brown’s position. The only thing that will make it easier is to change the culture surrounding gender dynamics in the workplace, and that conversation is just beginning.
“There are still very real consequences for too many women who say something,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era
Brown, petite and steely-eyed, first encountered those consequences when she lost her job in Conyers’ office in 2013 and filed a complaint alleging that he had touched her inappropriately and pressured her for sex for years. Her case was buttressed by four signed affidavits from colleagues who said they had witnessed Brown’s treatment, and that Conyers had harassed them too.
Not ready to retire, she tried to get another job in politics. She gave up shortly after another member of Congress told her he needed Conyers’ support too much to cross him, she said.
“That was his reputation,” she recalled. “Nobody is going to hire you. Nobody is going to touch you, unless you have a blessing from him.”
In 2014, she signed an agreement never to talk about her allegations in exchange for a $27,000 payment. It was fraction of her $72,000-a-year salary, and did little to compensate for the years of productivity remaining in her career. She took a job as a part-time airline gate attendant for $15 an hour and the promise of occasional free flights.
She thought she had moved on when she got a call last Thanksgiving weekend saying she was about to be thrust into a media firestorm.
Mike Cernovich, a blogger with a far-right following, had offered $10,000 to anyone who could document a sexual harassment claim against a member of Congress. The offer netted him Brown’s settlement agreement, though the source, he later said, declined the reward.
Brown said she still doesn’t know who gave Cernovich the documents. This point is important, she said, because people think she leaked her own story to take revenge on Conyers. Cernovich is best known for promoting a debunked conspiracy theory that the Hillary Clinton campaign ran a pedophile ring from a D.C. pizzeria.
Watch: The #MeToo Impact on 2018
“I just wanted to control the story,” Brown said. She also hoped that she could rehabilitate her career and play a role in what she saw as an emerging social movement. And for a head-spinning week, she did. She met with lawmakers and House officials who wanted to know how they could change the system.
Conyers’ supporters held a rally at a Detroit church, saying he had been treated unfairly and deserved due process under the law. But the pressure on him mounted as several other alleged victims came forward, and he resigned.
Brown returned to the same pressures of her post-congressional life in Detroit — the unpaid bills, the rapidly diminishing savings, the uncertainty about her future.
This time, though, she faced the added stress of suddenly becoming a public figure in a local community that had expressed extreme ambivalence about Conyers’ rapid descent. Some offered support. Her indoor cycling instructor even led the class in a round of applause. But others shunned her. She was snubbed at restaurants, she said. Friends stopped speaking to her.
“People feel like supporting me publicly is like not supporting him,” she said. “In the community, it’s like, ‘Why did you do it?’ These are the most hurtful things, when you lose people who you thought were friends.”
Conyers’ lawyer Arnold Reed said the former congressman would not comment for this story. He said Conyers is enjoying his civilian life.
“It’s a proven fact that her claims are false,” Reed said, without elaborating. “John Conyers has become the poster child for people to bring false allegations, and then they feel bad, because they lie.”
A better future?
Lawmakers say they are acutely aware of the challenges facing alleged victims like Brown, who lost their careers and reputations for speaking out at a time when there was little incentive to do so. Some have thrown their energies into trying to ensure future victims are better protected.
Female house members played a key role in drafting the workplace protection changes that passed the House last week — the first such update for congressional employees since 1995. Some changes went into effect immediately, including a rule that would create an office devoted to counseling House staffers throughout the claims process and a commitment to pay for their legal representation. Others, like a provision that would require all members of Congress to pay for settlements involving their own alleged misdeeds, are awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Indiana Republican Susan W. Brooks, who chairs the House Ethics Committee, told Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy last month that her work on the legislation was “some of the most important work I’ll ever do in the House.”
The sponsors spent hours meeting with victims. California Democrat Jackie Speier, one of two former staffers in the group, filmed a video in which she talked about being assaulted as a young staff member.
Other female sponsors said privately they were motivated, in part, by personal experiences they were not prepared to divulge. They also said they feared their male colleagues would respond by shutting young women out of jobs or the social interactions that can be crucial to career development on the Hill.
Critics, however, said it was unclear whether the legislation would make much of a difference, partly because it didn’t specify how the new resources would be paid for. It also took away authority from the Office of Congressional Ethics — the only independent body tasked with investigating ethics allegations against House members. Instead, cases would be automatically referred to Ethics committees in the House and Senate, which are composed of members and their staffs.
Those committees have frequently been criticized for being overly lenient on lawmakers.
“It’s clear that Ethics committees are not just asking what the person is charged with, but what does it mean to the institution, how will impact my party down the line,” said George Derek Musgrove, author of the book “Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America.”
Most ethical investigations in the House or Senate drag on for years or are resolved in secret — 125 of the 190 cases the House Ethics Committee has opened since 2011 were resolved confidentially, according to a report released Wednesday by the watchdog group Issue One.
Even under the intense media scrutiny spurred by the #MeToo movement, the fallout for members who have been named as alleged harassers in recent months has been mixed, with lawmakers’ themselves deciding their fate and little that amounts to due process.
Many allegations still remain secret. The names of members or offices involved in the more than $300,000 in payouts for sexual harassment and other workplace discrimination claims since 2003 have not been released, and it is uncertain if they ever will be.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, who has been at the forefront of calls for institutional changes, said last week that she would continue to press for those details.
“We need to let the victims know that they can speak out from the past,” the Virginia Republican said on the House floor. “If they want to speak out, they can; that this body is not going to be using any of our resources to stop a victim from the past from speaking out.”
Those who have already spoken out, though, say they need more than an assurance that Congress won’t stand in their way. Brown, for one, is still wondering what happens next.
“I don’t want it to be five minutes of fame, to be associated with wanting to just have revenge and taking someone down,” she said. “I want to be a part of the movement for change, for women’s equality. And I would want them to help.”