The circumstances surrounding the latest allegation are thorny: They involve a Republican state senator, Charles Schwertner, who is accused of texting a sexually explicit image and message to a graduate student. Reportedly, Schwertner and the student met at an event on the University of Texas at Austin campus — and not around the Capitol, as was the case in previous allegations against other senators — but the lewd messages that Schwertner allegedly sent came after the student indicated she was interested in working at the Capitol.
In the week since the Austin American-Statesman first reported that UT-Austin was investigating the allegation, Senate leaders have indicated they won’t touch the allegation, which Schwertner has firmly denied, until that inquiry wraps up.
“The Texas Senate is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation and expects a full report on this matter,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the chamber, said in a statement.
It’s a wait-and-see approach that comes about four months after the Senate took steps to bolster the processes in place for addressing claims of sexual misconduct. Despite those changes and a stated commitment to zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct, the allegation against Schwertner has further highlighted the complexity — and seeming hesitance by lawmakers to act — that still looms over the Capitol when it comes to responding to such wrongdoing by elected officials, who ultimately answer to voters back home.
“Many employers are concerned about their employees’ behavior outside the workplace,” said Malinda Gaul, president of the Texas Employment Lawyers Association. “But he’s not an employee. So basically you wonder why the Legislature wouldn’t feel obligated to look at it since we’re talking about a senator and constituent.”
The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation — between a student and a senator at an on-campus event. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.
And Senate leaders who have said they’ll await the results of the UT-Austin investigation have offered virtually no insight into what the Senate would do with the results of that investigation. Neither Patrick nor state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who oversaw the revisions to the chamber’s policy, responded to questions about what the Senate’s next steps could be or whether the chamber could initiate its own investigation into wrongdoing related to sexual harassment without a formal complaint.
Nothing precludes an investigation or inquiry of a senator without a formal complaint, but there appears to be little policy guidance for lawmakers at the Capitol on the “exact response here,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who co-chairs a House workgroup that is working on recommendations to address sexual harassment at the Capitol beyond the revisions members made to the chamber’s policy in December.
“That being said, we’ve already had three senators now mentioned by the media as having engaged in inappropriate behavior, and as far as I know no kind of inquiry has been done for any of them,” Howard said. “I would suggest it’s time that we start taking action.”
See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the Senate to await the outcome of the UT investigation. The question is what will they do with it, if it shows clear evidence of wrongdoing on Sen. Schwertner’s part? I doubt they know, either, and that’s the problem. And while there’s nothing wrong with waiting for the UT report and using it as a base for whatever followup action may be needed (if any), there’s also no reason why the Senate couldn’t do its own asking around, as there will likely be questions it will be interested in that may or may not be addressed in the UT report. Basically, is there a plan, other than hope it all turns out to be nothing? It’s not clear to me that there is, and that needs to be fixed, if not for this time then for the inevitable next time. And in the meantime, get to know Meg Walsh.