‘It’s an abhorrent culture:’ Reporter reveals sexual misconduct at State Capitol

Texas State Capitol (Nexstar Photo)
Texas State Capitol (Nexstar Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Work is underway to change the culture at the Capitol after a series of reports alleging sexual misconduct against women by men working under the dome. Some of the accusations are aimed at elected officials.

Many of the women who came forward told their stories to Olivia Messer. “I was really the first person to write about it,” Messer said during an interview on KXAN’s State of Texas. Her articles in The Daily Beast covered accusations ranging from pay discrimination to sexual assault. “It’s an abhorrent culture at the Capitol,” Messer said. “These are not isolated allegations.”

But, so far, there have not been criminal investigations, and most of the accusations have been anonymous. Few of the women who have spoken to Messer have named the men behind the accused misconduct.

“I think there are women who feel that it’s important that we know it’s happening who also understand the incredible impact it has on a person’s career to have information like this come out about them,” Messer said. “The women who have spoken to me, who have chosen not to name the person, either still believe in what that person has accomplished as a lawmaker or don’t want the harassment that they perpetrated to affect the people around them in ways they can’t anticipate.”

Messer’s reporting spurred other journalists to place a renewed focus on the topic. The scrutiny uncovered a flawed process to handle reports of misconduct, which resulted in few cases being reported.

“No one wants to come forward and do something this hard if they feel like it’s just going to fall in a hole somewhere,” said former State Senator Wendy Davis during a Texas Tribune forum on the issue. Davis previously shared her own account of being inappropriately touched by a fellow lawmaker. She said she did not know of a formal process to handle complaints at the Capitol.

In December, lawmakers from both the Texas House and Senate held hearings to address how to handle reports of sexual harassment. The House adopted new policies, including sexual harassment training. A Senate committee is working to craft improvements.

“When I first started reporting on sexism at the Capitol in 2013, there was total radio silence,” Messer said. She was surprised at the attention her latest stories received from lawmakers. “I think the main difference now is the national environment that we’re in,” Messer said, alluding to the #MeToo movement in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

“It is clear that if the figure they’re complaining to doesn’t take it seriously, everyone else does,” Messer explained. “And, it’s possible that somebody might actually do something about it in a way they have not before.”

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