The sun sets over the Texas Capito
The sun sets over the Texas Capitol Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Austin. ( Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle ) Jon Shapley, Staff / Houston Chronicle

Texas lawmakers call for changes after Capitol staffer reports lobbyist drugged her

“It is my sincere hope that our efforts and enhanced training protocols played some small role in bringing these brave young women a sense of confidence in knowing they would be supported and protected.” former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen

Originally posted by Cayla Harris for Houston Chronicle.

Texas lawmakers are rallying in support of a female Capitol staffer who recently accused a lobbyist of drugging her during an off-site meeting.

The Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed that it was investigating the incident over the weekend, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman. In the days since, lawmakers have vowed to support the woman and, in some cases, cut ties with the lobbying firm at the center of the allegations.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, opened Monday’s session with a promise to establish an email hotline for members, staffers and Capitol visitors to report any accusations of sexual misconduct. All House members will be required to advertise the email account on a sign in their offices.

The House’s sexual harassment training will also soon take place in person, rather than online, Phelan said.

“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,” he said. “We can and we must do better when it comes to changing the culture in this building.”

On Monday, more than 30 female House members signed onto an open letter in support of Capitol staffers, praising the woman’s decision to report what happened to her despite “the stigma and retaliation that has stymied such reporting” in the past.

“We will continue to monitor this incident and will be focused on ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support this complainant(s) and hope that this sends a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse,” wrote the members, led by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “We believe you.”

Firm discloses employee is ‘person of interest’

State officials have withheld details about the allegation, including the names and employers of the Capitol staffer and the lobbyist involved.

HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin lobbying group, confirmed that one of its employees is a “person of interest” in the investigation. After receiving a tip from law enforcement, founder Bill Miller said the group immediately hired outside counsel and a former law enforcement official to conduct an investigation.

The person accused “was asked to not come in, and they haven’t been in and won’t be in, and that’s kind of where we are,” Miller said in an interview. He would not confirm whether the person is still employed by HillCo Partners,which has a legislative staff of about 30 people.

Over the weekend, the firm sent a message to lawmakers saying it takes the accusation “extremely seriously.” The firm promised to terminate any employee found to be involved in such “abhorrent” conduct.

“Everything will be more clear shortly,” Miller added, saying the firm in part hired the third-party counsel to “light a fire” under law enforcement efforts. Miller added that he is not sure whether the firm’s employee is the only person of interest in the DPS investigation.

“When we learned of this, we turned on a dime to aggressively get to the bottom of it and act on it,” Miller said. “I’m proud of the firm for its aggressiveness in its pursuit of this, its feelings toward this kind of bad behavior. … When this thing is all done, we want people to say, ‘Those men and women did the right thing, and they did it fast and they did it properly.’”

The HillCo Partners employee denied the allegations Monday in a statement through his attorneys, who also declined to identify him.

“If, in fact, somebody drugged a Capitol staffer, it was not our client nor any employee of HillCo Partners,” Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton said. “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 the meantime, lawmakers are expressing their support for the woman on social media; some, at the request of state Rep. Shelby Slawson, have pledged to wear pink on the House floor on Tuesday in a show of solidarity.

“While we do not know who the woman is, I respectfully urge that we need not know who she is for her to know who we are as a Capitol community,” the Stephenville Republican wrote in a letter to members Sunday.

Symptom of ‘a culture that has been festering’

Slawson said that while the investigation is pending, her office is “off-limits to all lobbyists.” (“Is [the] lobby community closing ranks to damage control or protect its own?” she posted on Twitter.)

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, similarly said the accused lobbyist and their employer would be barred from his office while the investigation continues. If the allegations are proved, the group “will be permanently banned,” he wrote. Several lawmakers have pledged the same.

Miller said those statements unfairly punish people who have no connection to the alleged incident and that one individual’s actions do not reflect the values of the firm.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “It seems like a broad brush that you would want to condemn 28 other men, women and people of color because one person’s been identified as a person of interest.”

At least one of HillCo Partners’ clients, the Denton County Transportation Authority, has cut ties with the group since the allegations.

“DCTA has been made aware of the allegations against a member of the HillCo team and have determined that it is in the agency’s best interest to terminate its contractual relationship with HillCo at this time,” spokeswoman Adrienne Hamilton said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reiterated in a statement that the Senate has a “zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy which includes lobbyists, both at the Capitol and off premises,” but he did not commit to any immediate changes. Senators and staffers already undergo in-person sexual harassment training, he said.

“We are awaiting the law enforcement investigation of these criminal allegations to determine if there are steps the Texas Senate should take,” he said.

Renae Eze, a spokeswoman for Gov. Greg Abbott, said the governor’s office was notified of the allegations late last week and that, if true, “those involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“No victim should ever fear reprisal or retaliation for rejecting unwanted advances or for filing a sexual harassment complaint,” she said.

For some, the allegations call back to 2017, when several media outlets reported on a culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol. Two years later, the House began the legislative session by adopting a slate of new rules to identify and report misconduct.

“It is my sincere hope that our efforts and enhanced training protocols played some small role in bringing these brave young women a sense of confidence in knowing they would be supported and protected,” former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who led the chamber when those new rules were approved, said in a statement Sunday.

Phelan, the current speaker, emphasized in his Monday remarks that survivors of sexual misconduct should not have to choose between coming forward and potentially harming their reputation or career. He called the most recent accusations “disgusting” and “detestable” — and “a symptom of a culture that has been festering in this building for far too long.”

“Today, let’s all renew our commitment to making sure that every single person who works so hard in this building feels safe and protected,” he said.

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