This is the first of a series of stories reported largely by me between 2003-2006 on the behavior of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a past master at ordering his taxpayer-paid staffers to work on political campaigns and act as his personal servants. The house Ethics Committee actually investigated Conyers’ abuses as a result of the Nov. 21, 2003 Detroit Free Press stories. In 2006 the congressman — big surprise! — was let off the hook. What the Free Press published nearly five years ago is relevant today, as two Detroit City Council members — Conyers’ wife, Monica and former Conyers aide JoAnn Watson — maneuver in the Kwamegate text message scandal. In the coming days, I’ll be posting more of these stories. Please let me know — is history relevant, or not?
This story appears with permission of the Detroit Free Press
(c) 2003, Detroit Free Press
Publication Date: 21-NOV-03
Headline: CONYERS’ STAFF BROKE RULES FOR CAMPAIGN WORK, AIDES CHARGE
BUT OTHERS DENY THAT FUND-RAISING WAS DONE ON GOVERNMENT TIME
Byline: JOEL THURTELL, CHRIS CHRISTOFF AND RUBY L. BAILEY FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
Memo: A FREE PRESS INVESTIGATION; SEE CHART SHOWING TRAVEL EXPENSES IN MICROFILM, PAGE 6A; SEE ALSO SIDEBARS PAGE 7A.
Correction: CORRECTION RAN NOVEMBER 25,
* IN A FRONT-PAGE ARTICLE FRIDAY ABOUT U.S. REP. JOHN
CONYERS’ USE OF HIS STAFF FOR POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS, STAN BRAND WAS
MISIDENTIFIED. THE ARTICLE SHOULD HAVE SAID HE IS A FORMER SPECIAL
COUNSEL TO THE U.S. HOUSE ETHICS COMMITTEE.
Text: U.S. Rep. John Conyers and his top aides have assigned his congressional staff to work on political campaigns while they were on government time and sometimes in government offices, staff members say.
That violates U.S. House ethics rules and, in some cases, may be illegal.
Staffers for the 19-term Detroit Democrat told the Free Press they have used
government telephones, printers, fax machines and mailing lists to solicit
campaign contributions, organize fund-raisers and canvass for votes. It is
illegal to raise political funds from any federal office.
This report is based on extensive interviews with six current and former
Conyers aides, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, and Enid
Brown, a Conyers volunteer who said she took notes at a campaign strategy
session attended by Conyers and staff members in his downtown Detroit office.
The Free Press also examined congressional payroll and campaign finance
records, and schedules and internal records for Conyers’ office.
House Judiciary Committee attorney Burton Wides, who spoke for Conyers, denied any wrongdoing. He acknowledged that many staffers work on political campaigns for other Democrats and for causes Conyers supports, but he said they use compensatory time or work after hours and on weekends.
Conyers was not available for an interview.
The two-month investigation found that many members of Conyers’ staff, as well as at least one Judiciary Committee employee who reports to him, campaigned on government time without keeping track of their time as required by House rules. The recent campaigns include:
* In 2003, the April City Council race of JoAnn Watson, who was then on his
staff; the June run for WayneCounty Commission by Keith Williams, and an
effort last month to defeat a California ballot proposal to ban the collection
of racial data.
* In 2002, Jennifer Granholm’s bid for governor; Robert Ficano’s run for Wayne County executive; Kevin Kelley’s campaign in western Wayne County for Congress, and the failed race of Conyers’ wife, Monica, for a Detroit state
Accusations and denials
Ray Plowden, head of Conyers’ Detroit office, denied that any campaigning or
fund-raising has occurred in Conyers’ office.
” No, no, no, no fund-raising, no campaign work,” he said. “I tell people they
can’t do any fund-raising out of that congressional office.”
But a staff member insisted, “Fund-raising has been done from the offices. I
was part of it.”
Interviews with the six current and former Conyers staffers portray an office
where campaign work often supersedes daily official responsibilities. They
said campaigning is often done on nights and weekends, but during working
hours there is no effort to distinguish between political campaigning and
One staffer described the pervasive nature of the campaigning, describing work done for Conyers’ wife, Monica, 39, in her failed state Senate primary
campaign last summer.
“He had us all work on Monica Conyers’ campaign. We were dedicated to that
campaign. The district office was empty.”
The staffer added: “Conyers and Plowden said for the next two weeks, ‘I don’t
want you to think about anything but the campaign.’ What are we doing about
constituents? I’ve got a lady who doesn’t have any heat. It’s frustrating.”
Plowden denied that staffers were ordered to work on campaigns.
“I would never say that,” he said.
Despite the political cachet of her last name, Monica Conyers lost the primary
to Samuel (Buzz) Thomas, a popular state representative.
John Conyers, 74, first elected in 1964 and the second most senior member of
the House, is a cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus and a leading
voice for civil rights, affirmative action and liberal causes. He is the
ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and in line to become its chairman if Democrats win the House in 2004.
Wides said Conyers is more actively involved in other people’s campaigns than many in Congress, and that he encourages his staff to help campaigns that he believes advance social issues and values he thinks are important. Conyers has been in a safe district all of his political career — winning every
re-election by more than 90 percent.Congressional staffers commonly work on political campaigns. But House ethics rules require that they do so on their
free time and that they “should keep careful records documenting the campaign work was not done on official time.”
Plowden acknowledged that such records were not kept and that it was up to
individuals to keep track of their hours worked.
Plowden said staff members often work extra hours evenings and on weekends for which they aren’t paid, and can use those compensatory hours or vacation time to work on campaigns at any time.
He said vacation time varies, based on work performance, but that the average vacation time is two weeks annually.
Plowden is on leave working full time for the presidential bid of U.S. Rep.
Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.
Wides bristled when asked for records showing when staffers worked official
hours and campaign hours and took vacations.
“You’re not going to see anything,” he said. “You’re going to do a hatchet
job, and we’re not going to let you go fishing.”
Based on the interviews with former and current staffers and records, here’s a
detailed look at how Conyers used staff to work on two Detroit political races
and to raise money for his office.
April 29, 2003
Detroit City Council race
Conyers staffers and Judiciary Committee aides worked this spring on the
Detroit City Council campaign of Watson, a Conyers aide, well-known city
activist and radio talk show host.
On April 18, Conyers attended a lengthy meeting in his downtown Detroit office to plot strategy for Watson’s race against former City Council President Gil Hill, said Enid Brown, a private investigator volunteering for Conyers, and
others who attended the meeting.
At the meeting, Conyers asked 10 staffers, Judiciary Committee staff attorney
Lillian German and Brown to help find information that could be used against
Hill, they said. German had been hired earlier that month.
Conyers raised two issues himself, about a loan to Hill from Hill’s wife and
Hill’s role on a city pension board that had lost money.
Brown, who lives in Franklin, said Conyers asked her to find out whether the
loan was legal and for more information on the pension issue.
Conyers knew Brown had done research on the pension issue. Brown said she
joined the discussion because she respects Conyers. But although she’s seen
Conyers’ aides do legitimate constituent work on their own time, she said she
thought his staff should not be working on the Watson campaign on work time and in his office.
“I don’t know if there is any proof of a crime, but there was a discussion of
a campaign issue by people on the clock,” Brown said. Wides said the meeting
was to discuss possible ballot fraud in the upcoming election, which he said
was an issue of interest to the Judiciary Committee.
Brown and others at the meeting said the participants, besides Conyers, were
German and Watson, and staff members Carol Patton, Joel Segal and Glenn
Osowski, aides in Conyers’ Washington office; Plowden; Deanna Maher, chief of staff in Conyers’ Downriver office; Karen Morgan, Conyers’ Detroit press
secretary, and Marian Brown, Barbara Herard, Christian Thornton and Alexia
Smokler of the Detroit office.
All were paid members of Conyers’ staff at the time of the meeting, according
to congressional disbursement records.
The records also show Watson never took an unpaid leave to campaign for her
new job and, in fact, collected her $46,382-a-year congressional staff salary
until the day before she was sworn in as a council member. Watson declined
Plowden said he and Watson talked about her duties when she entered the race and agreed that she would continue working 20 hours a week for Conyers while she ran for the City Council.
U.S. House ethics rules state that part-time employees may engage in campaign activities, “provided the time spent on both official and campaign activities is carefully documented.”
Stan Brand, an attorney for the House Ethics Committee, said it would be
normal for a House staff member who runs for elected office to take an unpaid leave to campaign.
Wides, Conyers’ legal counsel,said Watson campaigned on her own time while
working 20 hours a week during the City Council primary campaign. He said
Watson then took vacation and comp time to campaign for the general election and keep her paycheck coming.
He declined to provide documentation.
Plowden said Watson worked regular hours in the office answering phones and writing letters to constituents. Former and current staff members said Watson was rarely seen in the office.
June 3, 2003
Wayne County Commission race
Conyers’ staff was quickly called on again — for Keith Williams, a candidate
running in a special election for a Detroit seat on the Wayne County
Williams was in a tough race against Cheryl Cushingberry, a political activist
and sister-in-law of former state representative and county Commissioner
Cheryl Cushingberry said she discovered that people at some public campaign
appearances were Conyers’ staffers, including German and Judiciary Committee attorney Greg Barnes.
“I was campaigning not just against Williams, but against Conyers,” she said.
German spent significant time in the Detroit area. Wides said she worked on
issues related to the Judiciary Committee such as alleged police brutality,
reparations for descendants of black slaves and funding for Detroit schools,
but a staffer said German spent much of her time working on campaigns of
interest to Conyers.
In fact, German was reimbursed for $1,000 in travel expenses in June by
Conyers’ campaign finance account, not from the budget of her employer, the
House Judiciary Committee, campaign finance records show.
German declined comment.
In late summer, Conyers told key aides that the staff needed to raise campaign
In late September, Plowden sent e-mails, one of which was obtained by the Free Press, to staffers on office time asking them to transmit from government computers names of public officials who could be solicited for donations.
Another Conyers staffer, Osowski, was working temporarily out of the office of Williams, the new county commissioner. He asked in October that Conyers’
staffers on office time fax him mailing lists kept on congressional computers
of potential contributors, including many local officials, using a
congressional office fax machine. Osowski was sending invitations to movers
and shakers who were asked to donate between $250 and $500 at an Oct. 13
fund-raiser for Conyers in the Tiger Den restaurant at Comerica Park.
House ethics rules say such lists “may not be shared with a member’s campaign committee, any other campaign entity, or otherwise be used for campaign purposes.”