WASHINGTON — Pressure mounted Tuesday on Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada to step down over allegations of sexual harassment following the resignation of a more senior colleague who succumbed to calls by party leaders to relinquish his seat for similar activity.
The congressional office was in turmoil as some staff members threatened to quit, a Democrat close to the lawmaker said, and the chief of staff sent out a memo obtained by Politico that sought jobs for employees who wanted to leave.
The developments came as Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of the House, told a Detroit radio station that he would resign on Tuesday. He endorsed his son for the seat.
Conyers faced an Ethics Committee investigation into multiple allegations that he harassed women who worked on his staff.
Kihuen, a freshman, was accused by a finance employee on his congressional campaign in Nevada of making unwanted advances and inappropriately touching her on at least two occasions.
The allegations against Kihuen were first reported by BuzzFeed last Friday.
Reaction to the allegation against Kihuen was swift, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Nevada Democrats calling for Kihuen’s immediate resignation.
Kihuen, in a statement Friday, apologized to the former campaign staffer, but said he did not recollect the incidents the way that she had portrayed them.
The lawmaker, who represents North Las Vegas, Mesquite and Pahrump, could not be reached by telephone on Tuesday. He has not returned multiple requests for comment.
Kihuen claims party leaders knew
However, Kihuen told ABC News on Tuesday that he would not resign from his seat. He also said party leaders knew last year about the former campaign staffer’s allegations of misconduct but stood by his campaign nonetheless. Kihuen questioned why they are calling for his resignation now, more than a year later.
“I do find it interesting that the DCCC, Leader [Nancy] Pelosi and Chairman Ben Ray Lujan — they knew about these allegations last year,” Kihuen told ABC. “They looked into them. They didn’t find anything, and they continued investing millions of dollars in my campaign. They went out there and campaigned for me.”
But Pelosi and Lujan both denied knowing about the allegations against Kihuen before BuzzFeed published its report, ABC News reported.
“Sadly, this is not the case. Leader Pelosi first learned of these allegations from BuzzFeed last week,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, told ABC.
“Congressman Kihuen’s statement is not true,” Meredith Kelly, DCCC communications director, said.
Over the weekend, after speaking with Pelosi, Kihuen decided not to step down from Congress, according a Democratic operative familiar with the congressman’s decision.
Late Monday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called an emergency meeting to discuss Kihuen’s decision. The caucus was divided on whether to support a call for his resignation, according to the Democrat familiar with the ongoing events.
On Tuesday in Las Vegas, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, said at a news conference that he knew of the Kihuen allegations only through media reports, but said if accusations against elected officials are confirmed “there should be consequences.”
“With regard to the congressman, only he knows. And he’s somebody who’s going to have to answer that question. And if indeed it’s true, then he should step down,” Sandoval said.
Turmoil among congressional staff
Also on Tuesday, Kihuen staff members threatened to quit, the Democratic operative said.
And Kihuen’s chief of staff, Peter Koltac, sent a note to other Democratic congressional offices seeking positions for staff members who wanted to leave, according to Politico. At least one staff member has resigned.
While Conyers was under investigation by the Ethics Committee, it was unknown whether a complaint has been filed with the secretive panel over the allegations against Kihuen.
A spokesman for the committee replied “no comment” when asked if a complaint was filed.
If a complaint is made, historically the chairman and ranking member would have to agree to investigate the allegation. The committee would have 90 days to look into the matter and determine if further action is warranted.
The committee, in the past, has investigated incidents that have occurred during a congressional campaign, or before a lawmaker took office.
The committee announced Nov. 21 that it was reviewing allegations surrounding Conyers.
On Monday, yet another allegation was lodged against the 88-year-old House member, when a woman who said she worked for him for more than a decade, Elisa Grubbs, said he slid his hand up her skirt and rubbed her thighs while she was sitting next to him in church.
Grubbs also said she repeatedly saw Conyers touching and stroking the legs and buttocks of other female staffers. Such behavior “was a regular part of life while working in the office of Rep. Conyers,” she said.
Grubbs is the cousin of another accuser, Marion Brown, who reached a confidential, taxpayer-funded settlement of more than $27,000 over allegations that Conyers sexually harassed her. That settlement came to light in mid-November, setting off the cascade of allegations against the congressman.
At least two other women who worked for him have accused him of sexual misconduct.
A lawyer for Conyers previously denied the allegations and said the congressman would fight to clear his name. That changed Tuesday when Conyers announced his resignation during an interview on a radio show. He defiantly said his legacy would not be diminished by “what we’re going through now.”
Conyers is currently hospitalized in Detroit where he is being treated for stress.
Kihuen and Conyers are just two of member of Congress who have been accused of improprieties in a growing social movement to stop harassment.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been accused by several women of inappropriate behavior.
Last week it was disclosed that taxpayers paid for an $84,000 settlement with a former spokeswoman for Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who accused him of sexual harassment.
Sexual impropriety also underlies a heated Senate campaign in Alabama where Roy Moore, a Republican, has been accused of sexual misconduct against teen-aged girls decades ago.
President Donald Trump, also accused of sexual misbehavior in the past, has endorsed Moore and encouraged him to continue his campaign, despite calls from leading Senate Republicans for Moore to end his candidacy in the special election to be held next week.
Review-Journal staff writer Colton Lochhead and the Associated Press contributed to this report.