Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber's policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.
"These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core," the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, "and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol."
On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.
News of the allegation has prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.
By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter. One co-founder of the firm, Bill Miller, later told The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been "tipped off" that one of its employees "is a person of interest" in the investigation.
"If facts come to light that anyone associated with HillCo partners had any involvement with such conduct, that person will be immediately terminated," HillCo co-founder Buddy Jones wrote, adding that the firm would also cooperate with the DPS investigation.
Phelan said during his speech that he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. The move, he said, was aimed at making it easier for people to report cases of harassment confidentially.
"Victims shouldn't have to decide between their career and coming forward," Phelan said. "That has to change."
The speaker also fcalled for the chamber's sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually, saying such a change would be "far more effective." Phelan said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the protocol.
"I stand here today having to address these disgusting, detestable allegations that are a symptom of a culture that has been festering in this building for far too long," Phelan said during his speech. "There is an active investigation underway, and we must let that process play out. However, this sort of behavior has no place in this Capitol, and moving forward, we can and will do better."
For years, the Legislature has been under scrutiny over its handling of reports of sexual misconduct of harassment. Lawmakers in recent years have revised their sexual harassment policies after reports surfaced that previous protocols were flawed and offered little protection for victims.
In 2017, the House updated its sexual harassment policy to include language that strengthened protections against retaliation and provided specific steps to report inappropriate behavior. And in 2019, the chamber voted to create and strengthen investigations related to sexual harassment, which included moving misconduct complaints to a committee with subpoena power and cementing the use of independent investigations of elected officials.
The Senate, meanwhile, revised its sexual harassment policy in 2018 to better detail how to report inappropriate behavior, among other things.