The Texas House is set to consider assigning a new task to the speech regulators at the Texas Ethics Commission: policing sexual harassment by registered lobbyists.
On the calendar for consideration on Monday is House Bill 4661, by Democrat State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (Houston). The bill would assign the duty of policing lobbyists over allegations of sexual harassment to the Texas Ethics Commission.
Shoehorned into the TEC’s existing process (or lack thereof), victims of harassment would be able to file a complaint against a lobbyist. This would result in secret, closed-door hearings in a process that is designed to accommodate slap-on-the-wrist settlements. The bill would see sexual harassment victims represented not by experienced criminal prosecutors or other victims’ rights advocates, but instead by paper-pushers who are professionally skilled at scrutinizing the particulars of campaign finance reports.
“This is a horrible, stupid bill, written in haste to address a real problem,” said Tony McDonald, an attorney who has litigated against and before the commission. “This is the totally wrong answer to the problem. Giving the TEC power to enforce sexual harassment rules against lobbyists will lead to such behavior being swept under the rug and will not work to serve victims. Moreover, it creates First Amendment problems that will likely lead to it being struck down in court.”
The Texas Ethics Commission has been described as captured by the professional lobbyist class in Austin. Indeed, the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, the “lobbyists’ lobbyists,” have come to the agency’s defense in litigation.
While ordinary TEC proceedings often drag on for years due to the commission’s schedule of meeting just six times a year, the new bill would require the commission to reach the end of its proceedings on sexual harassment complaints within 180 days.
House Bill 4661 was filed in response to allegations just two weeks ago that a lobbyist spiked the drink of a Capitol staffer in an effort to sexually assault her. The allegations drew outrage from legislators. However, since the initial uproar, the lobbyist at the center of the allegations has been cleared by law enforcement—and his associates have alleged he was framed by political opponents.
Under the proposed legislation, if a registered lobbyist were found to have engaged in a prohibited act of sexual harassment, defined most broadly as an “unwelcome sexual advance,” the TEC would be empowered to “deny, suspend, or revoke” the lobbyist’s registration with the commission.
However, since registration is predicated on engaging in a particular amount of speech regarding governmental action, it is not clear what effect the revocation of a registration would actually have on a lobbyist. It is equally unclear what due process rights would exist for the accused, or how findings by the TEC could impact a victim’s legitimate criminal investigations or civil proceedings.