Following inconclusive harassment inquiry, state Sen. Charles Schwertner asks to give up his committee chairmanship

Schwertner was investigated by the University of Texas at Austin after a student reported that he sent her unwanted lewd texts. He denied the allegation and an investigator determined evidence "does not support a finding" that he violated Title IX.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, on the floor of the Senate on April 5, 2017.

After facing an allegation of sexual harassment, state Sen. Charles Schwertner has told the Senate's leader he no longer wants his post as chair of the powerful health and human services committee.

In a letter sent to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday and obtained by The Texas Tribune, the Georgetown Republican indicated he planned to remain in the Senate but no longer wished to serve as a chairman during the upcoming legislative session.

“Per our discussions, I have asked not to serve in that capacity this session so that I can work and lead on other policy issues for my district as well as spend more time with my family,” Schwertner said in the letter.

Schwertner, a physician, won re-election to the Senate in November after the University of Texas at Austin opened an investigation into allegations that the senator sent lewd messages and a sexually explicit photo to a graduate student. UT-Austin ended its investigation in December, concluding that the “available evidence does not support a finding” against Schwertner but did not clear him of any wrongdoing.

Schwertner, who did not cooperate with UT-Austin investigators, has repeatedly denied sending the messages.

An executive summary of UT-Austin’s investigation into the texts concluded it was “plausible” a third party had sent the messages to the student from a phone application called Hushed that "allows a user to purchase one or more private phone numbers to communicate via cell phone without revealing the user's actual cell phone number or revealing that a text or call was sent through the Hushed app."

In the report, the UT-Austin investigator also said it was clear the student had received the unwanted “offensive text messages and photograph” and that “she reasonably believed those came” from Schwertner.

UT-Austin released copies of text messages in which someone claiming to be “Charles” told the student “I really just wanted to fuck you.” In another message, the author wrote, “It’s me. Want me to prove?” and offered to send a photo. The next message in the exchange is redacted. The student responded that his advances were unwanted and she was interested in learning about healthcare policy.

The messages came from a 512 number that was written on a Schwertner business card and purchased through the Hushed app. Schwertner’s attorneys told the investigator that they were sent by a “third party” without Schwertner’s knowledge or approval. His lawyers said Schwertner knew who that third party was, but wouldn’t identify the person to the investigator, according to an executive summary of UT-Austin’s investigation.

The allegations against Schwertner came the same year the Senate revised its anti-sexual harassment policy to offer more details on specific steps for reporting inappropriate behavior and mandated prevention training for senators. But the chamber largely took a wait-and-see approach to the allegations against Schwertner.

“The Texas Senate is awaiting the conclusion of the investigation and expects a full report on this matter,” Patrick, the Republican who presides over the chamber, said at the time.

In a statement released on Friday, Patrick would not confirm whether he asked Schwertner to give up his chairmanship. “My discussions with individual senators are private, but with the release of this letter, I can confirm that Senator Schwertner’s request is consistent with what I was already planning for the upcoming session," he said.

The Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy doesn’t appear to explicitly cover this situation. Though the policy indicates that the Senate’s sexual harassment prohibition may apply outside the workplace, it is largely focused on interactions between senators, staffers and individuals, such as lobbyists and reporters, whose work requires them to regularly visit the Capitol.

The Senate's policy indicates it would "initiate an immediate investigation" of any sexual harassment complaint. But Patrick noted in his statement that the Senate did not know the identity of the UT-Austin student and that no complaint had been filed in the Senate.

Reference
  • Read the letter that state Sen. Charles Schwertner sent to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asking to step down from his position as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

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.