Abbott calls for improved sexual harassment guidelines at the Capitol

  • Johnathan Silver
  • American-Statesman Staff
Nov 14, 2017
Stephen Spillman
Gov. Greg Abbott

After media reports of sexual misconduct at the Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he will work with lawmakers to improve policies related to sexual harassment.

“Gov. Abbott believes in and enforces a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment,” Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in a statement. “No victim should ever fear reprisal or retaliation for rejecting unwanted advances or for filing a sexual harassment complaint.”

The Daily Beast and The Texas Tribune detailed claims of sexual harassment and assault by male lawmakers and others at the Capitol. The reports mostly relied on anonymous sources.

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The claims included one from former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who said a fellow lawmaker early in her tenure groped her.

“It wasn’t an accidental brushing,” Davis told the Tribune. “It was a purposeful touching of my breast.”

He didn’t know she was a senator and later apologized, the Tribune reported. The story did not identify the legislator.

In another incident detailed by the Tribune, a former legislative staffer who wasn’t named said that a lawmaker placed his hands up her skirt at a lobbyist’s party.

The Tribune also reported that sexual harassment policies in both chambers are outdated and problematic because they require action by lawmakers, who could be biased if an allegation involves a colleague.

Officials in both chambers told the Tribune that no complaints had been filed since 2011. Several former staffers at the Capitol told the Tribune that they were unaware of how to file a complaint and even if they had known, they would not have trusted the process.

State Rep. Linda Koop, R-Dallas, asked Abbott in a letter Tuesday “for a protocol to be developed and put in place for all those that work at the Capitol.”

“Many of our staff and interns are young people and may be particularly vulnerable to those in positions of power,” Koop said in the letter. “It is the duty of us as elected officials to protect them; a responsibility I know we both take very seriously. Our legislative personnel are not fully educated as to where to report misconduct or harassment. Additionally, many of our interns are unpaid and not covered by the state’s Human Resources guidelines and protections.”

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Abbott said he would work to remedy the issue.

“As public servants for the people of Texas, the governor believes that all state employees, especially and including those working in the Capitol, should hold themselves to the highest standards and treat staff and colleagues with the utmost dignity and respect,” the Tuesday statement continued.

Also Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to review sexual harassment policies.

“As Chair of the Senate Administration Committee, I take the issue of sexual harassment very seriously,” Kolkhorst said in a tweet. “I thank Lt. Gov. @DanPatrick for highlighting this issue so we can make any necessary changes to our Senate policy.”

Meanwhile, on the House side, Speaker Joe Straus announced that he has directed the House Administration Committee and House Business Office to review sexual harassment policy in the lower chamber. The committee and office is directed to “make or recommend revisions and updates where necessary,” according to the Quorum Report.

“The Speaker is also asking that the House Administration Committee and House Business Office develop, as soon as possible and not later than Jan. 31, 2018, a sexual harassment training program for all House staff, including interns, and a training program for members of the House,” read a statement from Straus’ office. “In addition to requiring the speaker’s staff and all central House staff to take part in the training, Speaker Straus will strongly encourage all members to do so and to ensure that their employees take part as well.”