Texans are learning of rampant cases of sexual harassment and assault at the state Capitol that have gone unreported and unaddressed for years. They may be asking how such a toxic culture was allowed to develop. The answer is that the people who are supposed to expose such abuses have for years been complicit in covering them up.
In May 2015, the Texas Capitol was rocked by news that the American Phoenix Foundation, an undercover journalism group, had been surreptitiously filming lawmakers, lobbyists, and staff in the Capitol and in the bars and restaurants they are known to frequent around Austin. Establishment lawmakers in the House circled the wagons, apparently in fear of what was captured on tape.
State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) took a major ethics package backed by Gov. Greg Abbott and passed unanimously by the Senate and gutted it, replacing it with a bill that targeted the First Amendment rights of all Texans, particularly journalists.
Under the bill, which amazingly passed the House before dying in conference, lawmakers would have been retroactively empowered to sue citizens who published videos of them taken in the Capitol since June 12, 1985. The bill also targeted the free speech rights of Texas non-profits, including churches, and would have stripped journalists of their shield law privileges if their employer engaged in political speech.
Ultimately, Abbott and conservatives in the Texas Senate were forced to scuttle the landmark ethics bill in order to protect Texans’ First Amendment rights.
Despite the fact the bill was directly aimed at suppressing the Freedom of the Press, mainstream Texas journalists didn’t condemn the bill. In fact, they applauded it as an assault on conservative miscreants who were invading their turf.
Most Texas journalists appear to value their velvet rope access to powerful politicians (and their cocktail parties) over reporting the truth, and indeed, even over the safety and dignity of their female colleagues.
It turned out legislators’ fears relating to the Phoenix tapes were well-founded.
State Rep. Dan Huberty (R–Houston), who is running for reelection despite years of rumors that he has maintained inappropriate relationships with his staff, was caught on tape highly intoxicated immediately after leaving the House floor. In the video, he had to be physically restrained and escorted to his office by DPS officers and his staff.
Likewise, State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D–San Antonio), one of the two legislators exposed for sexual harassment and assault in the Daily Beast’s most recent exposé, was caught on tape kissing a lobbyist at an Austin bar and in another clip entering a private bathroom with a female Senate staffer.
These videos were offered up to Texas’ daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune. Despite their salacious content, one of the publications flatly labeled them as not “newsworthy.”
There was a complete media blackout regarding the tapes as they were released. It is clear from that silence that powerful figures in Texas’ media organizations made a conscious decision to hide the videos, and the culture of corruption they expose, from the people of Texas.
But it’s actually much more than that. In the case of each of these lawmakers (and a number of others inside the Capitol) those in the press have known about their behavior for years, and in some cases, decades. Rather than expose them to the public, they have accepted, accommodated, and allowed them to continue without scrutiny.
As Texans turn their attention toward sexual abuse at the state capitol, they must remember that the journalists who are now belatedly reporting these offenses have been for years complicit in creating and concealing the toxic Austin culture that spawned them.