Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
One of the biggest and oldest boys’ clubs in the state — the Texas Senate — will open its 86th regular session in less than three weeks with one of its senators facing unresolved questions about inappropriate advances on a graduate student. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, faces allegations that he texted unwelcome and lewd messages to the student, who attended an event she’d been encouraged by the University of Texas to attend.
Schwertner has denied sending any such messages or behaving badly. But an investigation conducted by a former U.S. prosecutor on behalf of UT — mostly without the senator’s cooperation — reached ambiguous conclusions and left a politically hazardous set of remaining questions.
The problem is that the investigation at UT didn’t reach any final conclusions. The investigator couldn’t prove Schwertner was at fault, but also couldn’t prove he was not. There is no evidence here to clear his name. In that way, it’s as though no investigation had taken place; Schwertner is in the same fix he was in after the allegations were known and before Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney who is now in private practice, started digging around. The only publicly available part of his inquiry is a two-page executive summary. His conclusions might be worse than what he was sent to find out in the first place:
“Based on the available information, it is clear that Complainant (the student) received the uninvited and offensive text messages and photograph, and that she reasonably believed those came from Respondent (Schwertner). It is also clear that the text messages and photograph were not sent from Respondent’s cell phone. Third, though an unidentified third person, through an attorney, claims responsibility for sending the text messages and photograph, we cannot attest to the truthfulness of that claim.”
“We recognize that it is plausible the Respondent sent the text messages and photograph from a device other than his personal cell phone and the third person claiming responsibility is being untruthful or does not exist, but we have no evidence to support these possibilities. It is also plausible that the third person who claims to have sent the text message and photograph does exist and in fact sent them. The forensic evidence shows that a third person had the means to do so. Respondent has access to information that could allow a more definitive conclusion to this matter, but the Respondent is unwilling to share that information, and the University lacks authority to compel him to cooperate more fully.”
Texas lawmakers return to Austin on Jan. 8. The Legislature has had its share of #MeToo incidents and both the House and Senate have been developing new procedures to protect officeholders and their employees from harassment, assault and other predatory behavior in the state’s Capitol. It’s a largely male domain and always has been; in the history of the state, 5,574 people have served in the Legislature, including 5,419 men and only 155 women.
The Schwertner case could put those issues in high relief. The reputation of the Legislature, like most institutions, is built on the reputations of its members. By that logic, to the extent that Schwertner has a problem, the Senate has a problem.
And like most institutions, the Texas Senate is built to protect its members as long as it can do so without hurting all the others. Forbearance toward people in power is a clear signal to the rest of us, telling us what kind of institutions we have. Not all Catholic priests and bishops and cardinals are sexual predators, but the church’s longstanding protection of its shepherds has ruined its reputation with much of its flock.
Schwertner’s continued presence in the Legislature will be a measure of the other senators’ confidence that this is, as Schwertner asserted in a news release, all behind them — that this is an isolated case that doesn’t reflect on the Senate in particular or the Legislature in general. They’re also betting that his standing as a public official had nothing to do with any of this — that it was a purely personal matter that didn’t depend on his official standing or power. And that the remaining questions about his behavior don’t reflect on the rest of them.
It comes at a particularly inopportune time, with a 140-day legislative session starting less than three weeks from now. All legislators are more closely watched when they’re actually in Austin doing work. The best situation for an alleged miscreant is to be out of sight and out of mind. That’s the opposite of what happens to lawmakers during a session.
If this was a closed file, the investigators might’ve been able to answer more of those lingering questions that would have allowed the Legislature to begin a new session without this latest distraction. Some examples:
- Who sent the messages in Schwertner’s name? Did Schwertner send it or did someone else?
- What device were the messages sent from? Who does it belong to?
- Where’s the full report?
- Why wasn’t this done in a way that could clear his name? And if that’s on him, as the investigator implies, why didn’t he cooperate and provide information to make his innocence apparent?
- The investigation said Schwertner gave the complainant his card with a cell phone number purchased from Hushed, an application that allows users to communicate via cell phones without revealing their actual cell phone numbers. Why?
- Why would someone going to that extent to disguise themselves give away their password for Hushed to a third party?
- Who is this third party (if there is one at all)? Why won’t Schwertner identify the person? Why did he or she have access to his Hushed account? Was that person’s phone used to send the messages?
“This unfortunate matter is now closed,” Schwertner said in a written statement sent to news media after the executive summary of Sutton’s report was made public. He got one letter wrong in that sentence, using a “W” where a “T” would be more apt.
This unfortunate matter is not closed.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.