Texas Capitol harassment policies under scrutiny after lobbyist accused of drugging legislative staffer

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas lawmakers vow to change the Capitol culture after learning a lobbyist was accused of drugging a legislative staffer during a meeting.

The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed an investigation but offered few details into what happened.

Lobby firm HillCo partners confirmed over the weekend that an employee is a “person of interest” in the investigation.

“We represent one of the parties that is purportedly being looked into regarding a capitol staffer allegedly being drugged, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton released in a statement. “At this stage we do not plan to identify this client publicly, but we can state that he has cooperated at every level requested to date.  If, in fact, somebody drugged a capitol staffer, it was not our client nor any employee of Hillco Partners.  We can state this with absolute certainty.  We respectfully request that everyone involved proceed with due caution before an innocent person’s life is ruined.” 

In a rare address to the House, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, called the allegations “disgusting” and “detestable,” sharing that he has instructed the establishment of an email hotline “for the purpose of submitting reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.”

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core, and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol,” Phelan said. “We can and we must do better when it comes to changing the culture in this building.”

“This session alone, we’ve gone from talking about COVID-19 to the budget deficit, to Winter Storm Uri and more,” Phelan said. “I find it infuriating that amid conversations about these monumental issues, I stand here today, having to address these disgusting detestable allegations that are a symptom of a culture that has been festering in his building for far too long.”

Phelan also said lawmakers will be required to post office signage with reporting information for staffers. He voiced support for in-person sexual harassment prevention training, rather than the current virtual sessions.

Phelan instructed his top lieutenants to implement updated policies to “make it easier for individuals to confidently come forward and report harassment.”

In a Monday statement, the president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, Tom Forbes, called the reported incident “deplorable.”

“The actions which have been alleged have no place in professional life or anywhere for that matter,” Forbes stated, adding that the association supports training programs to handle workplace issues involving creating safe environments to do business.

Over the weekend, several House members quickly announced partial and full bans on lobbyists entering their offices.

“While the investigation is pending, the accused lobbyist(s) and their firm(s) are banned from my office; and, if true, will be permanently banned,” tweeted State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was one of the first in the chamber to make such an announcement. Burrows declined to be interviewed for this report.

Some lawmakers announced they planned to wear pink on Tuesday in support of the staffer.

“It took courage for this staff member to come forward and report what happened, and I expect that the individual or individuals responsible will be fully prosecuted,” State Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, wrote in a statement.

“The House Sexual Harassment Workgroup I served on during the 85th Legislative Session focused on conduct between House employees and internal accountability procedures,” she continued. “However, in many ways, the Legislature is not a traditional work environment and involves interactions between a wide range of people who are not subject to those internal procedures. What happened last week calls for an even broader look at this environment and everyone involved in it, because we cannot tolerate a culture where harassment and assault are acceptable. This type of behavior should be condemned and lead to serious repercussions against the perpetrator.”

A group of more than 30 House lawmakers— all women— wrote an open letter to Capitol staff and the public to show their support for the employee who came forward to report the sexual assault claim.

“The ultimate goal has been to change the culture of silence and victim blaming and, instead,
create a supportive system that encourages anyone subjected to such abuses to know that they
will be believed and supported through the process,” they wrote.

“I think some of it is making sure that everyone understands where the line is, and quite frankly, not everyone does,” State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said Monday. “If everybody knows where the line is, it’s also easier to catch the bad actors who are taking advantage of confusion about the line.”

State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, penned a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Phelan, asking for improved sexual harassment prevention training and create a hotline for anonymous reporting.

“It is critical that we increase training and provide a safe, anonymous platform for our victims to report this egregious behavior,” Menéndez wrote.

Patrick stated the upper chamber has a “zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy which includes lobbyists, both at the Capitol and off premises.”

“Every senator and all staffers have received in-person sexual harassment training and we have a robust protocol for reporting and response to all allegations.,” he stated late Monday. “We are awaiting the law enforcement investigation of these criminal allegations to determine if there are steps the Texas Senate should take.”

The Governor’s office was notified of the investigation by DPS last week, spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed.

“Governor Abbott believes in and enforces a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Eze stated in an email. “No victim should ever fear reprisal or retaliation for rejecting unwanted advances or for filing a sexual harassment complaint.”

Eze said every employee in Abbott’s office is required to participate in “in-person Equal Employment Opportunity training within 30 days of being hired, which is reinforced with the Texas Workforce Commission’s online training, and again in-person every year after that.”

“If the allegations are true, those involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Eze added.

The Texas House adopted a new set of sexual harassment training policies in 2017 for members and staff. That same month, a Senate panel held a hearing to start reviewing its procedures for handling reports of sexual harassment. The House rules for the current legislative session have a section addressing “workplace conduct.” A request for a copy of the Senate rules surrounding workplace conduct was not immediately returned on Monday.

In both chambers, the people handling reports of harassment are appointed by state leadership. In the Senate, it’s Secretary Patsy Spaw, who is elected by the members of the chamber. In the House, it’s the House Administration Committee. The chair and members of that panel are selected by the Speaker.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was a leader in pushing for the new policies. She stands in solidarity with the capitol staffer.

“We are here for you, we believe you,” Howard said. “I feel very protective of them. And want to ensure that they’re here to do what they’re here to do. Most of them are here to make a difference in the world.”

Howard is hopeful for a new push to do the work, she feels is still very necessary to deal with sexual harassment at the capitol.

“..It was a step, but we have some work to do address the culture that supports this kind of behavior at the capitol,” Howard said.

As Howard reflects, she feels there are deeply rooted issues that will take time to address.

“A lot of legislative women here feel that we are still a part of working in the ‘good old boys club,'” Howard said.

Because lawmakers are nearing the end of the session, Howard thinks most of the work to implement more policies dealing with harassment, will happen this summer during intermission.

“For too long, the culture of the House has made victims of harassment feel like that they can’t or shouldn’t come forward, because it might ruin their reputation or ruin their career,” Phelan said. “Victims shouldn’t have to decide between their career and coming forward. That has to change.”

Zwiener, who sits on the House Administration Committee, said it’s “so important that we don’t just talk about this for a day or two.”

“What we need is long term change so that every single person in this building feels safe,” she added.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Current status of COVID-19 testing in San Angelo