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Texas House revises sexual harassment policy following reports of flaws

State Rep. Charlie Geren, chairman of the House Administration Committee, talks to reporters on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, after the committee voted on an updated sexual harassment policy for the Texas House of Representatives.

(Photo courtesy of Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

by Morgan Smith, Alexa Ura and Jolie McCullough |The Texas Tribune

Members of the Texas House approved a new sexual harassment policy Friday with significant changes, including language strengthening protections against retaliation and specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior.

The revised policy offers more details on the actions that could constitute sexual harassment and describing various ways victims can get help, particularly how they may pursue an internal complaint.

It comes about two weeks after The Texas Tribune detailed flaws in the former policy, which left often left victims to fend for themselves. The Daily Beast had earlier detailed accounts of sexual assault in the Legislature.

Following the news reports, several Texas lawmakers called for reviews of sexual harassment policies at the Capitol. State Rep. Donna Howard was among a group of female lawmakers in the House who had a conference call with House officials to discuss changes to the policy.

"One of the things the women we're particularly concerned about is making sure this is a policy that shows the respect that this situation deserves,” Howard, D-Austin, said at Friday's hearing. “That it gives enough information that a person feels comfortable in knowing that if they do find themselves the subject of harassment, that they have a policy that gives them clear guidance and also gives them some certainty that there will be action taken.”

House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said the new policy would require all House employees and staff to undergo anti-sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training by January 2018. The training can’t be required of individual lawmakers, some of whom were behind the worst behavior recounted to the Tribune. But Geren said House leaders would keep records of who attended the trainings and that those records would be subject to public information laws.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Geren said that in his nine years as chairman of the committee, he had received “a few” complaints of harassment.

Those investigations, Geren said, included addressing the complaint with the victims and the person accused of sexual harassment “to determine if there really was an issue in hopes of resolving it “between those two people.”

Geren’s comments contrast with what he told the Tribune in November when he refused to discuss the process for handling complaints because he said he had not received any. A request under public information laws for complaints made since 2011 turned up no records.

“There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any,” Geren told the Tribune last month. “I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”

In a phone call, Geren clarified that at Friday's news conference, he had been referring to complaints made through an informal process.

“Nothing's been in writing, that’s typical in these cases. Women choose to remain anonymous,” he said. “They’ve come forward and gone through the details with me, and I’ve investigated it and we’ve resolved it."

Neither the former nor the newly adopted policy detail whether sexual harassment complaints must be in writing. And it’s unclear whether Geren or others fielding complaints are required to maintain any documentation regarding such complaints or disciplinary action that may have resulted from those complaints.

One former staffer told the Tribune that Geren handled her complaint in 2013. The staffer, who was in her early 20s and working for a House lawmaker at the time, said that another lawmaker repeatedly asked her out. She said he had his chief of staff call her desk phone to get her cellphone number, and the lawmaker would text her, inviting her to his office for drinks or out on a date. She said she always declined or did not respond, but he would approach her around the Capitol asking why she didn’t respond.

She eventually told a friend what was happening, and it got to Geren. The House Administration Committee chairman then called her into his office, and after asking her what had been happening, said he was going to take care of it. The meeting lasted three to four minutes, she said. Soon after, the lawmaker apologized and never called her again, she said.

The staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, reached out to the Tribune after being surprised after reading Geren's comments in November that there had been no official complaints.

“I don’t know if the House Admin keeps records on this,” she said.

Geren did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident.

During Friday's hearing, Geren said he was planning to ask House Speaker Joe Straus to create a working group to further review the chamber’s policies and make additional recommendations ahead of the 2019 legislative session. In recent weeks, some lawmakers have suggested the creation of an independent entity to review complaints.

Questions also remain about how members, who ultimately answer to voters back home, could be disciplined if they are found to have sexual harassed someone.

House officials can "address and discipline employees," Geren said, but have less control over disciplinary actions for elected officials when it comes to sexual harassment.

"The full House would have to discipline a member if it went that far," Geren said on Friday, who added that he would "absolutely" support punishing another lawmaker for inappropriate behavior.

"None of us are above the law on this and shouldn’t be," he said.

The Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst to lead a review of its policy, has yet to hold any public hearings on the matter.

Help us investigate sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol by confidentially sharing your experience with our reporters. You may contact our reporters directly, or if you're more comfortable contacting us anonymously, send an encrypted message to the Tribune with the messaging app Signal at (512) 745-2713.

Jolie McCullough| (512) 716-8612| Email

Morgan Smith | (512) 716-8620 | Email

Alexa Ura | (512) 716-8637 | Email

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