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The Trib adds on to the updated date rape drug story

I was a little surprised when there wasn’t a Texas Tribune story about the revelation that the date rape drug allegation levied against a lobbyist turned out to have been fabricated. They’re usually pretty quick on stuff like that, even when it wasn’t their scoop. With the publication of this story, I can see why. It focuses on the lobbyist in question, and it’s a deep dive.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin’s most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member’s office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating “an office contest” in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to “shoot white yogurt” onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker’s office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that “had too much of a locker room environment.”

Dennis’ history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they’re bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn’t meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn’t acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

[…]

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis’ LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker’s office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker’s chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed “made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable” and made Parker’s “office an unbearably hostile work environment.”

“We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first,” the letter said, “and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren.”

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would “sleep together before session is over.” Dennis also “repeatedly said to multiple people” that Young has “Fuck me eyes,” the letter said.

The letter also described “an office contest” Dennis held “in which he demanded that the winner be able to ‘shoot white yogurt onto the loser’s face.’” A female staffer lost “and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office,” the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn’t have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was “unfair.” But he did say that, “during that period of time,” Parker’s office “had too much of a locker room environment.”

“I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us,” Dennis said. “However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn’t being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well.”

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it “was not a contest, but rather an agreement” with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

“Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday,” he said. “Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner.”

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show “Modern Family” “and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons.” Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

“It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly,” Dennis said.

See here for the background. That’s a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more where that came from, and you should read it. Richard Dennis was absolutely damaged by the false allegations made against him, and he has suffered for that. Based on this story, in which not one but two legislators called HillCo to tell them to keep him out of their offices, he didn’t have a great reputation among legislative staffers. You can make of that what you will.

The Capitol date rape drug allegation was fabricated

Jesus Christ.

The news landed at the Texas Capitol last month like a bombshell: State police were investigating claims that a male lobbyist from one of the most influential firms in Austin had used a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers.

The Capitol quickly swung into outrage mode. Female legislators wore pink in solidarity with the victims. The House speaker condemned the “disgusting, detestable allegations.” After the alleged culprit was identified, some legislators banned his firm, HillCo Partners, from their offices. And new laws requiring that lobbyists receive harassment training were proposed.

Within a week, however, the Travis County district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety announced in a statement that they would not be bringing any charges. “We have concluded there is not enough evidence to support these allegations. … No crime occurred in this instance,” DPS and DA Jose Garza said.

Now, a DPS investigation has concluded that a legislative staffer fabricated the story of the date rape drug to cover up embarrassing personal behavior. “No evidence or facts obtained during the investigation support the allegation,” the 50-page report said.

In a separate audio recording obtained by Hearst Newspapers, the investigator went even further, describing the accused lobbyist, Richard Dennis — not the female staffer — as “the victim” in this case. “She lied to me,” the investigator, Special Agent Patrick Alonzo, can be heard saying. “She orchestrated all this.”

DPS turned over the results of its investigation to the district attorney’s office indicating that the woman was deceitful in her dealings with the police, but prosecutors declined to charge her. Garza, a Democrat elected in 2020, did not respond to questions from Hearst Newspapers.

In a lengthy interview in the office of his attorneys, David and Perry Minton, Dennis said that when he learned he was the suspect in the drugging case, he felt like his career was over. At one point, he said, he thought about killing himself.

“I contemplated, with my life insurance, maybe I am at this point better off not walking this earth, to my family, than I am walking in it,” said Dennis, 42. “She needed an alibi. For some reason, this is the story that she settled on.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I believed the accuser. There was no reason not to – there was nothing fantastical about her claim. Far too many women have their own stories to tell, and the Capitol’s reputation as a hostile work environment for many women is well earned. The policies put in place following the 2017 stories about the Capitol’s culture were not very robust, with the omission of lobbyists from the mandatory sexual harassment training being dumb and obvious. I don’t regret emphasizing the voices of the women who were speaking out following this accusation.

But this story turned out to be a lie, and the lobbyist who was named by the accuser (and whose name was published by Michael Quinn Sullivan’s website The Scorecard) was the actual victim. That’s terrible for Richard Dennis, who did not deserve to have any of this happen to him. I was suspicious when the investigation ended with no charges being brought – we have certainly seen that outcome in cases where the story was not made up – and that turned out to be wrong. I hope Richard Dennis is able to get his life back together and that he gets any help he might need in processing what happened to him, and I hope that people remember him for more than this.

This is also terrible for everyone who has been or is being or will be victimized by an actual sexual predator, because now there’s another reason for many people to dismiss and disbelieve them. False accusations like this are quite rare, something like two percent of the total, but they sure leave an impression. I don’t know what drove this woman to make the decision she did, but I sure hope she lives with the regret and guilt of that choice for a long time. She did a lot of damage, and not just to Richard Dennis.

This story may have been untrue, but the culture at the Capitol, and so many other places, remains a problem. It still needs everyone’s efforts to fix it. Don’t let one lie and one liar distract you from that.

There’s lots of room to improve sexual harassment training at the Lege

They’re starting from a really low point.

You could miss both questions about sexual harassment and still pass the preventative training required every two years for Texas House staffers.

The online training, a roughly 15-minute lecture on sexual harassment sandwiched between lessons on anti-discrimination and workplace violence, mostly dwells on definitions, with a narrator explaining different types of sexual harassment. But it offers no real-life examples or hypothetical situations — both of which are key to an effective sexual harassment training, three experts who reviewed the video said.

At the end, staffers only need a 70 percent to pass the 10-question quiz. They can take it as many times as needed to pass.

“It felt like it was the very bare minimum that they could afford, and I just kind of viewed it as a box I needed to check,” said one staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they’d be punished for speaking out without authorization. “Did I feel that it was helpful and gave me resources and equipped me to be able to respond if I felt harassed or discriminated against? No. I did not feel that way.”

The online training is also emblematic of past efforts to address complaints of rampant sexual harassment and “predatory behavior” toward women who work at the Capitol — symptoms of what House Speaker Dade Phelan called “a culture that has been festering in this building far too long.”

Concerns were heightened by reports late last month that a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on a Capitol staffer during an off-site incident.

Phelan has said he is already working to revamp the training and make it an in-person class in the future. The first-year speaker has also established a new email for members, staffers and Capitol visitors to report misconduct anonymously: [email protected]

Late Tuesday, the House passed a bill mandating sexual harassment training for all elected officials and lobbyists; it now heads to the Senate for approval.

See here for some background on the date rape drug incident. The bill passed in the House is HB4661. A similar bill – SB2233 – was passed last week by the Senate, which also closes the lobbyist loophole. I expect at least one of these will make it to Greg Abbott’s desk.

As to how they could actually do better at the Lege, at least from a training perspective:

Three experts who reviewed the House’s online training said it only covers basic legal principles, leaving much room for improvement. Good training, they said, may prepare staffers for uncomfortable situations and give them resources to report misconduct. But the most important part of weeding out sexual harassment in the workplace is buy-in from leaders who hold bad actors accountable and treat survivors with respect and dignity.

“Training is one component, but if you don’t address the culture and all of the underlying issues, it’s almost a waste of time,” said Kelsey Medeiros, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has spent years researching workplace ethics and sexual harassment. “If you don’t have this environment around it that is going to support what people have just learned, it’s not going to work. It needs to be a culture change.”

Medeiros said the training is especially important in a place like the Legislature, a historically male-dominated work environment that could be conducive to harassment, especially of women.

The experts specialize in ethics and sexual harassment and reviewed the training at the request of Hearst Newspapers, which obtained the video through a public records request.

A switch to in-person training could also help with engagement, since the online format makes it easy for people to turn their attention elsewhere while a video plays, said Jessica Ramey Stender, senior counsel for workplace justice and public policy at Equal Rights Advocates, an activism group that focuses on gender-based issues in the workplace.

It also doesn’t help that some people don’t take the training at all: In some legislative offices, one employee will take the training and print out multiple certificates of completion for their colleagues, staffers said.

“One of the main reasons why sexual harassment trainings aren’t successful is that they can be pretty boring and dry and don’t hit home for people,” Stender said. “In this training, they launch right into the law, without talking about the kind of specific power dynamics that really play into and contribute to sexual harassment occurring in this context and make it more likely to occur.”

In the next iteration of the training, House leadership would do well to include more information about the ways a person experiencing harassment is affected by it, said Amy Averett, the director of the SAFE Institute program, the training and services arm of the Austin-based nonprofit SAFE that works to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct.

“It doesn’t give any context for how difficult it is and why people don’t speak up,” she said. “There wasn’t that kind of invitation or offering of support, kind of thinking about it from the survivor’s perspective.”

Best practices are pretty well known here, so there’s no excuse for getting this wrong. And again, while providing a robust education regimen and a safe way to report incidents is important, nothing will really change until the overall culture changes. It will take a lot more than better training to accomplish that.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

Yes, lobbyists need sexual harassment awareness training, too

Closing an obvious loophole.

Sen. José Menéndez

In the aftermath of the story that rocked the Capitol this weekend of a lobbyist using a date rape drug on a legislative staffer, the Legislature is starting to take action.

Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) filed a bill on Tuesday that would require lobbyists to under sexual harassment and ethics training before registering as a lobbyist.

The state senator tweeted, “This bill is replicated after the Texas Senate policy which requires completion of sexual harassment training every 2 years by Senators & all staff. If lobbyists are going to work in & around Capitol, & directly with our staff, they too should be held to a responsible standard.”

All 31 senators have signed on to SB 2233 as co-authors, and it is scheduled for a hearing in State Affairs on Thursday.

The Senate action is one of many steps the Legislature is calling for, and legislators say the problem goes much deeper. Rep. Ina Minjarez told The Texas Tribune, “There is still a culture of silence and covering things up.”

[…]

Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) filed HB 21 last November that would allow an individual to file a sexual harassment complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission within 300 days of the incident. The bill was languishing in the Calendars Committee until yesterday when it was scheduled for the House floor on Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Good thing we heard about this before the May 13 deadline for bills to be advanced out of committee, isn’t it? One may reasonably wonder why lobbyists weren’t covered in the previous legislation about sexual harassment, but at least that embarrassing loophole can still be closed now. It’s a tiny baby step – again, this is a massive culture problem, one that to paraphrase Max Planck is likely only to see advancement one political funeral at a time – but it’s still a necessary baby step. Also good to know that this Lege and its leadership can attempt to solve a problem when it puts its mind to it. The Chron has more.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.