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Texas 2020 Elections

Congressional candidate's legal work attracts scrutiny in battleground Democratic primary

Shannon Hutcheson's opponents in the race for the Central Texas seat argue she has a history of representing corporations in cases against vulnerable people.

Shannon Hutcheson is running for election to the U.S. House to represent the Texas 10th Congressional District.

Nearly a decade ago, Shannon Hutcheson left the international law firm Baker Botts to start a firm with a longtime colleague, hoping to focus more on issues important to her.

Now some of that work has fallen under sharp scrutiny as she runs against two other Democrats for the battleground U.S. House district currently held by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin. Hutcheson’s opponents argue that absent a voting record, the candidates’ work histories are the best indication of their values — and Hutcheson’s record is one that includes defending powerful interests against the vulnerable.

“Every day I walk into a not-for-profit health clinic, and we serve 18,000 uninsured and under-insured Central Texans — that’s it,” said Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician and Hutcheson primary rival. “We need to put folks forward that have a long track record of representing our progressive values and not folks who choose to represent them when convenient.”

Hutcheson is pushing back. Chief among the controversial cases is her firm’s representation of Donald Dunn, a former guard at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Taylor. Hutcheson helped her partner, Allison Bowers, represent Dunn in a civil lawsuit after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting migrant women he was transporting to the Austin airport. However, she says her role was limited to two depositions that she can recall in the long-running case.

“I’ve been a lawyer for 23 years, worked on hundreds and hundreds of matters, and the idea that you can cherry-pick two or three and build a narrative around that — I wholesale reject that,” Hutcheson said in an interview. She argued the “best indicator of my values” is instead the work she has done for groups such as Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and the SAFE Alliance, which helps survivors of of child abuse, sexual assault, trafficking and domestic violence.

The controversy is unfolding in a district that ranks as one of national Democrats’ highest priorities this cycle in Texas.

The 10th District is one of six seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting next year in the state after the districts saw narrow margins last cycle. Mike Siegel, a former attorney for the city of Austin, came within 4 percentage points of defeating McCaul in 2018, while the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, Beto O’Rourke, carried the district by less than a point.

Siegel is running again in 2020.

Hutcheson was the last Democrat to enter the 2020 race but has emerged as the top fundraiser, taking in $535,000 through the third quarter. In mid-November, she received her biggest endorsement yet: EMILY’s List, the influential national group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. The organization cited her legal work in backing her.

As the only woman in the race — and a victim of sexual misconduct herself — Hutcheson said she finds the implication that she has betrayed fellow survivors “so deeply and personally offensive.”

Still, Hutcheson’s critics see a broader, concerning pattern in her legal work, and even if the cases in question are not representative of her entire career, they provide a contrast with her primary competition.

“For me, I’ve spent my 21-year career fighting for workers as a union organizer, as a civil rights lawyer, and taking on cases where workers complained of harassment and discrimination,” Siegel said in an interview. “Shannon was apparently on the other side.”

In the days before EMILY’s List endorsed Hutcheson, two voters in the district separately reached out to The Texas Tribune to share information about a poll they said they received that asked about Hutcheson’s involvement in the Dunn case, among other things related to the primary. Both voters said they are Siegel supporters, and one, Juliette Simmons, said she block walked and did other things to help Siegel when he last ran.

“I still did research on the primary candidates for 2020 because ultimately I'm more committed to flipping the seat than to any single person, but coming across the [issues raised about Hutcheson in the poll] ... made me realize there was no reason to adjust my support for Mike, and started a monthly contribution (which I'd never done before in my life),” Simmons wrote in an email.

On Nov. 19, the left-leaning Texas Observer was the first to report on Hutcheson’s legal work in the context of the 10th District race. “Texas Congressional Candidate Shannon Hutcheson Defended Corporations Against the Vulnerable,” the headline said. “EMILY’s List Endorsed Her Anyway.”

Hutcheson Bowers is a labor and employment firm that represents businesses. The firm has defended employers against claims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, creating a long trail of potentially problematic cases in a Democratic primary where Hutcheson is touting her working-class roots.

Those who have worked with her in the legal field say she is committed to just outcomes.

“Shannon is in this to help employers do the right thing - to make sure that they’re in compliance with civil rights laws that protect employees in Texas,” Kell Simon, an Austin plaintiffs lawyer, said in a statement provided by the campaign.

The Dunn case has factored most prominently into the recent discussion surrounding Hutcheson’s legal work. Dunn had already pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor charges of official oppression and unlawful restraint when the ACLU of Texas filed a federal civil lawsuit against him in 2011 on behalf of three women who said they were sexually assaulted while being transported from the facility to the Austin airport or bus station.

The case was settled years later out of court.

While court records list Hutcheson as Dunn’s lead attorney along with Bowers, Hutcheson says her role was minimal. Dunn was Bowers’ client, Hutcheson said, and she only remembers having “attended one deposition as an observer with [Bowers] and I phoned in for one telephone deposition when she was traveling.” The docket shows only Bowers making appearances in the case.

The Texas ACLU’s legal director at the time, Lisa Graybill, considered the role of Hutcheson and Bowers’ firm to be notable.

“Everyone is entitled to representation, but as a lawyer, especially as a lawyer in private practice like that, you absolutely choose who your clients are,” Graybill said. “I support everyone having an attorney, but … knowing the allegations and knowing at that point that he pled guilty to them — at that point, your role is liability and damage control for the company.”

The Dunn case brightened the spotlight on the T. Don Hutto Residential Center and the private prison company that operates it: CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. More recently, Hutcheson Bowers represented CoreCivic after an immigrant detainee, Martha Gonzalez, brought a class-action lawsuit against it last year claiming forced labor at the company’s facilities across Texas, including the Hutto Center. CoreCivic told the Austin American-Statesman in a statement at the time that all its work programs are “completely voluntary,” and the case remains ongoing.

Unlike in the Dunn case, court records list Bowers as the firm’s only attorney representing CoreCivic against Gonzalez. Hutcheson said she was not aware of the Gonzalez case until it came up in her campaign, and more broadly, she maintained she has “never performed work of any kind” for CoreCivic. (What little involvement she had in the Dunn case, she said, was done at the behest of Bowers, who she understood to be representing Dunn, not CoreCivic.)

Still, Hutcheson’s opponents note that her firm is small enough — the website lists three members — that it stands to reason she is sharing in the profits of all cases it takes on, regardless of whether she is directly working on them. Asked to respond, Hutcheson did not deny the premise but emphasized that she and Bowers largely work independently.

“That is her prerogative, and likewise it’s my prerogative when I choose a client or take a client,” Hutcheson said.

Gandhi said he was probably most troubled by Hutcheson’s connection to the detention center cases.

“To me, man, that hits home,” Gandhi said, citing his experiences with immigrants at the clinic where he works. “I hear this trauma regularly, and it breaks me and it breaks people who care for these communities.”

Another controversial matter that Hutcheson has worked on involved a group of college administrators known as the Association for Student Conduct Administration. Several years ago, an ASCA board member alleged that an ASCA official had sexually assaulted her while they were in Fort Worth for a conference. The official denied the accusation, and ASCA brought in Hutcheson to investigate the situation.

“Following a rigorous investigation Hutcheson Bowers determined that [the] claims could not be substantiated,” the ASCA said in a February 2016 statement.

But the board member found the investigation to be anything but rigorous, telling Mother Jones that the report that resulted from it “blames me” for failing to do certain things, such as taking photos of her injuries. Mother Jones said the board member had received an “excerpt of Hutcheson’s report.”

Hutcheson stands by the investigation, noting that while she has been retained for a number of similar investigations, the ASCA matter was different in that she was “not engaged as a lawyer.”

“They retained me to go to interview folks and report back, sort of parallel, if you will, with the criminal investigation that was proceeding with law enforcement,” Hutcheson said. “As I understood, my marching orders were to go and interview everyone and to simply report back — here’s what everybody said — and that’s what I did. What they did with that information, I don’t know because I wasn’t providing them legal advice.”

The ASCA board member did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In any case, Hutcheson Bowers was proud of its involvement in the ASCA matter, alluding to it on promotions materials and noting it “received national press coverage.”

Like Hutcheson, Siegel is campaigning on his legal record. Unlike Hutcheson, though, Siegel was not able to entirely pick his cases as a city attorney — and has had to take on at least one sensitive matter.

In 2013, an Austin police officer shot into the car of a woman, narrowly missing her, as she tried to flee a rowdy crowd on a barricaded section of Sixth Street in the early morning hours. A Travis County grand jury declined to indict the officer, Robert Krummel, but the woman, Gwendolyn Daniels, later filed a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force. Siegel and another city lawyer represented Krummel in that case, which ended in 2017 when a federal judge ruled in the city’s favor, agreeing the officer’s use of force was reasonable given the circumstances.

Siegel said that as a city attorney, he was able to volunteer for cases — such as the city’s 2017 challenge to the state’s “sanctuary cities” ban — and was assigned them, which is what happened with the Daniels case. “And I think the public record speaks for itself,” he said. “I think it was a fair result.”

Siegel considers his “most important work” the lawsuit against the sanctuary cities ban, and Hutcheson, too, has cases that she believes are much more representative of her values than those that her critics are focused on. She points to people like Sam Baker, an Army veteran and 10th District resident who fell victim to a for-profit college scam in the 1980s. The federal government sued him in 2017 to collect a large amount on a small student loan from the time, and Hutcheson worked pro bono to try to restore the original total due. Baker ultimately settled with the government on a refinanced amount from a few years ago.

“I felt like we were the underdog, and she was just there to help us and she truly did,” Baker’s wife, Kim, said in a recent joint interview with the two.

The couple says they plan to vote for Hutcheson in the primary.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood 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.

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