Disgust overwhelmed her when she felt his tongue on her hand.
A capitol staffer, she had been at a large party celebrating the end of a legislative session a few years ago and was on her way out when a male lawmaker she had never spoken to reached for her.
“You can’t leave yet,” the staffer remembers the lawmaker telling her as he held her hand tightly. She thought he was going to bring her hand to his mouth and kiss it. Instead, he licked it and refused to let go.
“It was in a crowded place,” said the staffer, who no longer works at the Capitol and spoke to The Texas Tribune on the condition of anonymity for fear it would affect her current job. “Maybe it was so subtle that no one else saw anything [but] the audacity of someone to do that and think it’s OK — it just boggled my mind.”
As sexual misconduct accusations pile up against men in power across the country, interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides indicate sexual harassment not only is pervasive at the Texas Capitol but also regularly goes unchecked. Most of those interviewed described how men at the Capitol — some of them lawmakers — engaged in a wide range of harassment, including degrading comments and gestures, groping and unwanted sexual advances.
Yet not a single formal complaint of sexual harassment has been filed in either the House or Senate since 2011, according to a review of public records and interviews with officials responsible for fielding complaints. Even though sexual harassment policies have been in place for two decades, few employees interviewed by the Tribune even knew they could file a formal complaint.
One policy is clearly outdated, referencing a state agency that no longer exists. Both rely on Capitol officials with little incentive or authority to enforce them, particularly in cases of harassment by lawmakers.
“Well, you know we can’t fire them. The people get to fire them,” said Patsy Spaw, of elected officials. As the secretary of the senate, Spaw’s duties include resolving complaints in the chamber.
Capitol culture, career concerns
Many of those interviewed spoke of a Capitol culture that offers little support for victims and expressed fears that speaking out would lead to retaliation or career sabotage. Instead, women who work in the Legislature said they try to protect one another by quietly exchanging stories. They pass along the names of men to stay away from and the hallways in the Capitol to avoid.
“You either created a distance or didn’t place yourself in situations where you had to interact with them,” said a former staffer who dealt with unwelcome advances from a lawmaker on the Senate floor and at an end-of-session party.
Another former staffer described the Capitol as a place where sexual harassment is “as common as a hello,” where powerful men can prey on employees with impunity. She recounted greeting several guests at a lobbyist’s party who were sitting at a table. Among them was a lawmaker, who in a “split second” shot his hand up her skirt.
The staffer said she pushed his hand away and quickly left the event in distress. She remembers being thankful for wearing the “right underwear,” noting that otherwise he could have penetrated her.
Feeling powerless, she said she didn’t disclose the incident to anyone. “To be able to have success in this world, you’ve got to keep quiet,” she said.
The House and Senate have had a sexual harassment policies since 1995. Both generally state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and lay out basic procedures for reporting any misconduct.
The House policy directs employees to make complaints to the chair of the House Administration Committee — an influential position set by the House Speaker and currently held by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren — or to the manager of the House payroll and personnel department. Over in the Senate, complaints would be reported to Spaw, the Senate Human Resources office or supervisors in individual offices.
But those officials have little to no authority over lawmakers who are ultimately elected by voters back home. In the Senate, a legislator could be reprimanded privately or publicly if they were found to have sexually harassed someone, Spaw said. In the House, the state Constitution gives lawmakers “the power to punish a member for disorderly conduct and, in extreme cases, to expel a member,” Jon Schnautz, the chamber’s ethics adviser, said in a statement.
Several former staffers said they would not have reported their experiences with sexual harassment to House Administration because they had no confidence that the member-led committee would be objective.
“I probably would never even have felt like that was an outlet that I could trust, but I didn’t even know that was a process that existed,” said Genevieve Cato, a former House employee who has spoken publicly about harassment at the Capitol.
‘Nothing to talk about’
Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who’s served in the House for almost two decades, refused to answer questions from the Tribune about how his committee would handle a sexual harassment complaint because, he said, the committee had not received any.
“There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any,” Geren said. “I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.” Asked if the policy needed revision, Geren said he would not further discuss the issue.
For her part, Spaw said any complaints filed in the Senate would be taken “really seriously,” though she said a resolution would also depend on the Administration Committee and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to take action.
“Each situation would be individual,” she said. “But it is a conundrum ... I’m thankful I’ve not had to deal with it.”
Labor and sexual discrimination law experts say the chambers’ policies offer few assurances that complaints will meet adequate resolutions.
Having lawmakers in charge of investigations is “absolutely problematic,” said Elizabeth Boyce, an attorney for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Without an independent and impartial entity to investigate any claims of sexual harassment, Boyce said, it’s too easy for personal judgments to come into play.
“I don’t think that [an investigation] can be fairly done by someone that they’re likely friends [with] or working together in other capacities,” she said. “There’s a conflict of interest there that I think would impede any impartial investigation.”
Legal experts also raised concerns that the House policy says victims may first confront harassers to tell them to stop the behavior.
“This is treating a sexual harassment complaint different than any other kind of complaint,” Boyce said. “If there was an employee stealing from the company, for instance, you wouldn’t expect the person who caught them ... to tell the person to stop before they make the complaint.”
The Senate’s policy doesn’t explicitly suggest victims should confront their harassers, but staffers have been instructed to do so. During a 2016 in-person training seminar on sexual harassment in the Senate, a trainer laid out “strategies for confronting sexual harassment on the job” that included instructions to “clearly let the harasser know you don’t welcome any advances,” according to a recording of the training a reporter viewed on the Senate’s internal system.
It’s not unusual for policies to ask employees who encounter sexual harassment to address offenders about their behavior before reporting it, said Audrey Mross, a Dallas-based employment attorney. But it is crucial those policies emphasize this is only applicable in cases of mild behaviors and only if they are comfortable having those conversations, she said.