(Illustration/Sunny Sone)

In the Texas Legislature, Sexual Harassment Complaints are Rarely Filed, Haphazardly Maintained and Then Destroyed

Despite the Legislature’s reputation for sexism and sexual harassment, there are no official complaints on record in either chamber. What’s happening to allegations?

by and

Late last year, amid a national reckoning over sexual misconduct in politics, media and entertainment, reports surfaced of a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol. The problem has been widespread and women appear to have such little confidence in traditional avenues for reporting grievances that they started their own list of “bad men” to warn others in Texas politics. In response to media reports, the Texas House announced a new sexual harassment policy, which included training and counseling for employees and lawmakers, in the hopes that it would curb harassment and help victims report abuse. But the policy seems to have a glaring blindspot: Complaints, when filed with the House, are destroyed five years after they are investigated. While so many stories exist, records do not.

In November, the Texas Tribune reported that there were no formal complaints of sexual harassment made in the House since 2011. In the Senate, there have been no formal complaints since 2001, Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw said in committee hearing the next month. But an Observer public records request revealed that there are no documented complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination on file against any lawmaker or legislative staffer in either chamber, at any time — partly a result of the Legislature’s records retention policy.

If a complaint was made against a lawmaker or staff member before 2011, it has since been destroyed, even if the lawmaker is still in office or the staffer is employed at the Capitol. By comparison, the Senate destroys complaints seven years after the accused leaves the Capitol. (The 2001 complaint in the Senate was filed by one staffer against another, both of whom left the Capitol more than seven years ago.)

Complaints, when filed with the House, are destroyed five years after they are investigated. While so many stories exist, records do not.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who researches sex discrimination and workplace equality. “There’s no reason to ever destroy them.”

While the policies are in line with state record retention guidelines, not keeping complaints on file indefinitely means the Legislature does not have a way to track alleged incidents, Grossman said. Future employers don’t have a way to discover details about an employee’s past conduct. Within the Capitol, repeat offenders and patterns of misconduct are also harder to identify.

“It’s just bad management generally, and it’s certainly not going to contribute to a better environment,” said Grossman.

The lack of centralized records stands in stark contrast to what some lawmakers acknowledge is a persistent culture of disrespect and harassment of women in the Texas Capitol. Multiple detailed allegations of harassment and sexual assault against Democratic Senators Borris Miles and Carlos Uresti were published in the Daily Beast in November. Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat and the longest-serving woman in the Texas Legislature, told the Observer about her experience speaking out about sexual harassment during her first term in 1973.

One explanation for the lack of records is that complaints are sometimes handled verbally, a practice that could protect the accused. Spaw said she believes some cases were handled internally and informally within the offices of individual senators. She wouldn’t have a record of such cases. However, if anyone came to her with an allegation, it would be recorded in writing, she said.

“It’s just bad management generally, and it’s certainly not going to contribute to a better environment.”

In the House, harassment can be reported to the personnel manager in the House Business Operations office or directly to Representative Charlie Geren, chair of the House Administration Committee. James Freeman, the House personnel manager, said that if there were a complaint with his office he would be responsible for documenting it. But it appears some complaints that went to Geren were handled at his discretion.

In November, Geren told the Texas Tribune he hadn’t received any complaints, but less than a month later he clarified that he had received “a few” but he had handled them informally.

“Nothing’s been in writing, that’s typical in these cases. Women choose to remain anonymous,” he told the Tribune. “They’ve come forward and gone through the details with me, and I’ve investigated it and we’ve resolved it.” Geren did not respond to questions about this process from the Observer.

The fact that neither chamber has records of grievances means that they have “successfully squelched complaints,” Grossman said.

“There’s not a chance that there haven’t been serious instances of misconduct in an institution with that culture and of that size,” Grossman said. “All that tells me is that people didn’t know where to complain, didn’t know how to complain, they were afraid of where to complain and maybe they made informal complaints that weren’t treated as complaints. It’s not plausible that it means there were no problems.”