Texas Legislature 2019

Texas House votes to strengthen sexual harassment investigations

The chamber voted on a resolution that moves misconduct complaints to a committee with subpoena power.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen presiding over his first votes as speaker of the house. Jan. 9, 2019. Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune.

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the Texas House approved a policy changing how it will address sexual harassment complaints.

Amid continued scrutiny over how lawmakers handle reports of sexual misconduct by their colleagues, members of the House on Wednesday approved a measure that will strengthen the way the chamber addresses complaints of sexual harassment.

As part of a unanimous vote on the House's standard housekeeping resolution that governs its operations, the chamber approved a new internal policy that would move investigative duties for complaints of inappropriate behavior to a legislative committee with subpoena power. It also cements the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The policy is meant to add more teeth to the chamber’s process for investigating harassment complaints and would place the House more in line with congressional practices. It was prompted by a work group created last year by former Speaker Joe Straus, who asked the group to recommend measures to address and prevent sexual misconduct in the Legislature after reports shined a light on how entrenched the issue is at the state Capitol.

“[We worked] to ensure we were providing a policy that was honoring those who had been subjected to harassment so they felt they would get a safe and fair hearing, that they had a place to go to that they could count on,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and co-chair of the work group that worked to revise the chamber’s policies.

Under the new policy, sexual harassment complaints would go through the chamber's general investigating committee, which would investigate and recommend sanctions based on the severity of the harassment. If the complaint involves a member of the House, the committee would be required to appoint an independent investigator.

House members made a slight change to the proposed policy that specified any independent investigation of a state representative would be a fact-finding mission only and not involved in any potential remedial action.

That committee, whose members would be appointed by the speaker of the House, emerged as the preferred venue for such investigations because it already has authority to hold closed meetings to ensure confidentiality and can eventually make reports public, Howard said. It also can cite someone for contempt if they ignore a subpoena.

The changes come more than a year after the House revised its anti-sexual harassment policy following reports that the previous policy was flawed and offered little protection for victims.

Following the increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace that swept the nation through the MeToo movement, Texas lawmakers were left to grapple with how to check their own power and establish impartiality in a system that was overseen by officeholders themselves.

The House moved quickly to offer more details on what constitutes sexual harassment, strengthen protections against retaliation and clarified the process for reporting inappropriate behavior. But the additional changes approved Wednesday further define the process for investigating complaints of sexual harassment and create a clearer pathway toward disciplinary action against elected officials who violate the policy.

The general investigating committee also has the authority to initiate investigations without an official complaint, Howard said. The Texas Senate has no equivalent investigative body, but it has the ability to form one.

“I do want to thank Rep. Howard and Rep. [Nicole] Collier and their working group for the great work they did and the cooperation they showed on moving this body forward on sexual harassment policy,” House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said from the dais after the measure was passed.

The House’s move to place sexual harassment investigations in the hands of lawmakers with subpoena power comes on the heels of a Title IX inquiry into state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who did not cooperate with University of Texas at Austin investigators looking into allegations that the Georgetown Republican sent unwanted, lewd messages and a sexually explicit photo to a UT graduate student.

The university ultimately concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Schwertner with violating the federal gender equity law but did not clear him of any wrongdoing.

The Senate, where two other members also faced public allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017, revised its sexual harassment policy in May to offer more detailed examples of what constitutes sexual harassment and more thoroughly explain the specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior. But its leaders have kept mostly silent and have not publicly taken action on the allegations.

Last week, Schwertner told Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that he no longer wished to serve as chairman, but it’s unclear whether Patrick asked Schwertner to give up the post.