The Secret Sexual Predators Inside Texas Politics

Olivia Messer
11.07.17 5:00 AM ET

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

More than a year before the now-infamous “shitty media men” list, women in Texas’s statehouse secretly created their own online whisper network to document sexual harassment and assault in their industry.

This spreadsheet, called the “Burn Book of Bad Men,” lists 38 men, named by an unknown number of women who contributed anonymously to the document. Its accusations run the gamut from pay discrimination to creepy comments and sexual assault.

The men in the document include campaign workers, legislative staffers, and lawmakers. Some of the allegations are recent; others stretch back 20 years. Most of the women who contributed to the list and circulated it early on worked for Democrats, so most of the accused men are also Democratic officials or staffers.

More than one sexual-assault allegation on the list involves a man on a Democratic political campaign, according to women who contributed to the spreadsheet.

Excerpts of the document, but not the full list, were reviewed by The Daily Beast this week.

For years before the document existed online, this type of information “just kind of lived in whisper circles,” said Rebecca*, who started the list in the fall of 2016.

Rebecca told The Daily Beast that she worked in Texas politics for about two years before giving up and leaving the state because the political environment was “toxic and horrible.”

Sexism in the Texas state legislature is well-documented, in both vague and explicit terms.

In 2005, Republican State Sen. Craig Estes allegedly propositioned an intern at my former publication, The Texas Observer, on her first day in the Capitol. He let her know that if she needed any “adult supervision,” she was welcome to “see him in his office,” according to the magazine. The implication was clear, and it was included in the magazine’s list of notable quotes that year.

In 2013, I wrote a lengthy story about how men were—in addition to regularly making crude jokes at work—caught looking at porn on the Texas House and Senate floor. Others asked about their colleagues’ breasts during debates. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving female state legislator in Texas history, once told me a horrifying tale about a lawmaker who nicknamed her his “black mistress.”

(Depressingly, there’s a long list of similarly toxic situations in other statehouses, including in California, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, and Kansas.)

My story documented the misogyny of the “good ol’ boys’ club,” but it didn’t cover even a fraction of the previously unreported accusations in Rebecca’s living document.

“Bitch, I’m not done with you yet.”

Rebecca started out on a Texas Democratic campaign in 2014, where she described one senior staffer as a “stereotypically not-great guy.”

“He had this baseball bat in the office, and there was one instance during a team meeting where he was swinging it really close to my head,” she told The Daily Beast. “I asked him to stop because it was making me uncomfortable.

“He said, ‘That’s the point.’”

On another occasion, Rebecca was wrapping up work in a conference room at the Texas Democratic Convention, and he allegedly yelled at her “so loudly and with such force” that she had her first-ever panic attack.

“I sat there and thought, ‘OK, I guess this is just what campaigns are like.”

Then, she began having conversations with other young women in Texas politics.

“I didn’t have any intention of sharing the list widely,” Rebecca said. “It just started as a tool for people who are connected to the Texas political sphere to just kind of share with their friends.

“We’re not seeking retribution,” she added, before noting: “It’s a signal for men to understand that we’re keeping tabs on this stuff and we’re talking about it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum and these aren’t isolated incidents. We’re putting them on notice that you’re not going to be able to get away with this stuff without it being shared.

“It’s a power thing,” she continued. “Talking about our stories together is a way to take back some of that power.

“The one takeaway that I’ve had: No one is immune. Democrats and progressives claim to take the moral high ground, but there are men in these organizations who are horrible abusers.”

Indeed, as one male Democrat working in Texas politics told The Daily Beast on Monday: “Within my own party, it’s really bad.”

Of course, journalists aren’t immune either.

Karen Brooks, a former political reporter at The Dallas Morning News, told The Daily Beast that many of the “lecherous” men in the Capitol regularly and repeatedly propositioned her during her 16 years covering the legislature.

One state senator allegedly asked, “Why don’t you come over to my apartment and let me chase you around the room?”

A state representative told her, “I’ve been undressing you in my mind all session.”

“When your head is in it and you’re trying to get your job done, it’s really a defense mechanism to tell yourself it’s not that bad,” Brooks said.

But that wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

She told The Daily Beast that she was at The Cloak Room, a bar just off the Capitol grounds, drinking one night when she was assaulted by a “low-level Republican state representative” whom she did not wish to name. (Karen’s story is not included in Rebecca’s list.)

“The place was packed shoulder to shoulder with lobbyists and state reps,” she said, but the bar was dark and loud—and alcohol was flowing.

“He physically trapped me up against the bar and groped me,” she said. “He had both of his hands working at once.”

Brooks said the lawmaker groped her breast and her thigh, and then he reached between her legs. Then, she said, she pushed him back physically with a chair until the dozen other state representatives and lobbyists realized what was happening and dragged him away.

As she left that night, he yelled after her: “Bitch, I’m not done with you yet!"

Several of the witnesses that night, including ones in the legislator’s delegation, encouraged her to file charges, Brooks said.

“The people who jumped to my defense the quickest were the men,” she added.

Ultimately, Brooks decided not to file charges over fears that it would make her job reporting at the statehouse more difficult.

“I just knew that my effectiveness was going to be diminished,” she said. “And I wasn't going to let that guy—or any of these other guys with loose lips and drinking problems—keep me from doing the job I’d dreamed about since I was in second grade.

“I wasn’t going to let him take that away from me.”

“What was I going to do—scream?”

“The whole game of journalism is about giving someone a good feeling talking to you so that they give you the information you need,” said Heather,* a political reporter in Texas.

Calling out your subjects for sexist or creepy behavior—or seeming “difficult”—is a tough way to cultivate sources, she told The Daily Beast.

“Journalists are also desperate,” Heather continued. “There’s like 20 people behind you for whatever job you have, and that’s particularly true for state legislatures.”

“You apply that to the situation here and it’s a recipe for disaster,” she said.

When Heather first got to the Texas Legislature in 2011, she faced a series of comments and questions from male lawmakers that seemed constructed to test how far they could go.

“You have these brushes that seem less harmless, but it’s like, they’re always trying to see what they can get,” she said.

“But there’s a difference between a little bit of ‘Little Ladying’ and, like, getting off on what power you hold over other people,” she said.

When interviewing one male lawmaker, Heather said, he offered to answer her questions in his office, but only if she came by around 10 p.m. She did not go.

A mentor eventually told her to use the same judgment at the statehouse that she would use at a college party.

“I was really naive and I was 23,” Heather said. “It didn’t occur to me that anyone would do something in the Capitol.”

Late one night when the legislature was in session, and Heather was reporting on an education deal, she says she was interviewing Borris Miles—then a representative, now a Democratic state senator representing a district in Houston—to try to get details of the bill.

“He’d said several times already, ‘If you go out to dinner with me, I’d be happy to give you the details,’ and I’d sort of laugh it off but it was weird and obviously gross.”

But she kept pressing because she wanted the story.

Around midnight, in a hallway in the Capitol, Heather says, he cornered her and forcibly kissed her outside the House chamber. (Her story is not included in Rebecca’s “bad men” list.)

“It happened quickly,” she said. “I think he thought it was hilarious.”

“He didn’t do it to be funny,” she said. “But what was I going to do—scream?

“I think he was just enjoying the fact that he had power. It was horrible. I remember coming back in and being super shaken.”

“These men are actively taking advantage of their position of power,” she said. “It’s horrible, and it’s really hard to see your way out of it when you’re doing legislative coverage.”

UPDATE: Jeri Brooks, a spokesperson for Sen. Miles, issued a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday calling the allegations "unfounded and implausible,” after representatives for the legislator initially refused to confirm or deny the accusation on Monday. "Not only did the alleged incident not occur, but Sen. Miles' committee assignments and direct responsibilities during the 2011 session were not related to education," said Brooks. "And, to charge that the alleged activities occurred in full view of members, House staff, lobby and fellow reporters outside the House chamber but remained unreported for six years is simply not credible.”

Heather’s editor at the time confirmed details of her story to The Daily Beast, noting that he was made aware before that night that “Miles had been propositioning her,” which he says then escalated to him “pursuing her around the House floor.”

Immediately after the alleged incident, Heather said she rushed back onto the House floor to tell her editor.

“I was like, ‘If anything else happens, I’m going to step in,’” her then-editor told The Daily Beast. “In retrospect, I wish I’d stepped in and done something anyway. At the time, I was kind of like, ‘[Heather] seems OK and can certainly take care of herself.’ But in retrospect—it was so inappropriate.

“It had been a thing at the Capitol for so long,” he added. “And eventually it got to the point where we’d have to warn interns about it right off the bat, that this was something they may likely run into.

“There’s not a lot of electoral accountability in Texas politics in general, so I think this issue fits into that,” said Heather’s former editor. “I mean—Ken Paxton, our attorney general, is indicted and facing criminal trial and he’s probably going to get re-elected.”

Sen. Borris Miles is well-known in the state for a number of scandals, including in April 2008 when he was indicted on two counts of deadly conduct involving an episode at a party when he allegedly forcibly kissed another man’s wife while brandishing a pistol. The man hosting the party pressed charges after Miles allegedly said, “You don’t know what I’m capable of doing.” He was acquitted at a January 2009 trial.

In 2015, Miles allegedly threatened to “beat up” a plainclothes Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who was protecting the attorney general. (Miles told the Texas Tribune his version of the event in question was “much different.”)

He was re-elected in 2016.

“Who would you go to? There’s no HR department.”

“The women who do this work have had no recourse,” said Taylor Holden, who said she worked in Texas politics for nearly five years. “Even if you did name any of this, who would you go to? There’s no HR department. The people in leadership positions are men, and they’re the ones doing these things.”

Holden interned briefly at the legislature, worked on various political campaigns, and eventually became the executive director of the Dallas Democratic Party before moving to Colorado in search of a less toxic work environment.

Holden said she made multiple contributions to the “Burn Book of Bad Men,” including writing about one man who “shouts at women staff, candidates, elected officials, and volunteers to the extent that they feel unsafe; speaks over them in meetings and doesn’t make space for their ideas and feedback.”

She told The Daily Beast that a campaign official, while she was an intern, asked the women on his staff to go with him to a strip club and on more than one occasion provided alcohol to interns who were minors, encouraging them to drink with him.

“There’s not a single campaign I ever worked on where there wasn’t some aspect of this culture,” Holden said.

“A staffer at the Texas Democratic Party repeatedly asked me out and told me how much he respected me—while commenting on my body and appearance,” she continued. “He persisted no matter how frequent or polite my rejections were. Eventually, he started bringing me gifts when we’d see each other for meetings, and he’d tell me I owed him.

“It didn’t matter that I was in a position of leadership or that I had more than 100 Democrats on my ballot to elect—I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone except my closest friends.”

“Please don’t leave me alone with him.”

Kim*, a former Texas legislative staffer, said that in 2003, former Rep. Richard Joel “Rick” Noriega was alone with her in another representative’s office when he asked about her nose piercing.

And then her ear piercings.

And then he allegedly asked, “Do you have any piercings anywhere else?”

“It was a gross, smirky question,” Kim told The Daily Beast, noting that she added the incident to the spreadsheet. “He was asking me an inappropriate question about my body—and body piercings. He wanted to know something private about my body.”

John*, a man who was in 2003 a friend and colleague of Kim’s working in Texas politics, confirmed to The Daily Beast that she told him the story about Noriega “shortly after it happened.”

“It didn’t leave much to the imagination as to what he was implying,” John said.

Noriega is a much-beloved former member of the Texas House of Representatives who eventually went on to become the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. John Cornyn. He also served in Afghanistan and ascended to brigadier general in the Texas Army National Guard.

Noriega did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

Though Kim was around a lot of other sexual harassment in the legislature, she said that Noriega’s comment was her only personal experience. As time went on, she tried to mentor other young female staffers who might be experiencing the same things.

“I would talk to other women staffers and was very protective of them, and I was very aware of the way that the misogynistic culture impacted all of us. I was also aware, in smaller ways, how much younger women were often seen as ‘window dressing’ and not as ‘serious policy staff.’”

John also said he also witnessed a fair share of harassment under the pink dome.

“Two sessions ago, in 2015, late one night, myself and a colleague and a lobbyist were drinking whiskey in the office with a powerful House member. And I see his hand go on [the lobbyist’s] thigh under the table,” he said. “My first thought was: ‘Well, do I need to be discreet? Maybe this is consensual and I need to act like I don’t see it?’”

“And then, while she was sitting across the table from us, she sends us a text message that says: ‘Please don’t leave me alone with him.’”

John’s colleague Michael* confirmed that story to The Daily Beast this week.

“He was very hands-on, touching her,” Michael said of the legislator. “She sent a text to [John] and I making sure we didn’t leave. He was putting his arm on her shoulder, trying to fill her glass of wine up, pulling her in multiple times.”

Shortly after that text, Michael and the lobbyist were alone in the breakroom, where he says she reiterated that she didn’t want to be left alone with the House member and that she wanted to make sure he didn’t try to go home with her.

So John and Michael stayed there until 2 a.m. to make sure she wasn’t left alone, he said.

“At the end of the night, [the House member] tried really hard to get her in his car,” said John.

In the end, Michael and John called the cabs and made sure the two went home in separate vehicles.

Neither of the men felt comfortable naming the House member involved in the anecdote to The Daily Beast. But Michael said he questions, even now, whether he should have done something to call out the legislator that night.

“Looking back at a number of times in my career, I’m kind of ashamed that I didn’t say anything,” he said. “I don’t even know how I should have or would have.”

In any case, he said, “It would be impossible to be a women working in Texas politics without going through something like that.”

“I wish it wasn’t like this and I’m sorry that it is,” Michael added.

Former legislative staffer Genevieve Cato, who now works for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told The Daily Beast that in her first meeting with a powerful man in the statehouse, on her very first day at the legislature, he spent the entire meeting staring at her chest instead of her eyes.

“I just remember the way that his eyes started at my feet and went all the way up one side of my body and went all the way back down,” she continued. “I just felt so disgusted and uncomfortable.”

“It sounds so small, and especially it sounds so small to men,” she said. “But it made me feel vulnerable and scared and exposed. It happened every single time that I had to go into his office.”

“It was my first time working in the legislature,” Cato said. “I was incredibly naive and excited because I believed in the power of policy to change the world.”

“It got to the point that I would regularly leave the office and call my parents and cry,” she said.

“I was terrified that if I said anything, my career would be over before it even got started,” she added. “I wasn’t the only young woman in that office and I wasn’t the only person who experienced it.”

Cato said the ‘Burn Book of Bad Men’ list was shared with her around the 2016 election. “In that moment, we didn’t really feel that any of the existing institutions could or would protect us,” she said. At first, it was just a few women contributing to it. But soon it was shared with folks “at all levels of political work” in the state and purposefully included a range of situations, she said.

Women with access to it use it as a tool to determine who to avoid as a sexist boss—not just who to avoid in dark corners of the statehouse, Cato said.

“I want people to know that this list exists because people like me have been walking around carrying this fear about what would happen to us,” Cato said. “If knowing that this list exists will get someone to think twice before they act inappropriately toward people they work with, then it’s worth it to me.”

Even still, she added, “I want institutions and people to take responsibility for this toxic culture and start doing something about it so that it stops happening.”

When my 2013 story on statehouse harassment was published, Cato said her harasser—the same one who never met her eyes—took to social media to condemn the sexist behavior detailed in it.

“Seeing him pretend to be aghast at what he was perpetuating made me feel so powerless,” she said.

Cato said it’s hard to see so many men in politics named on the list because sometimes they’re hard-fought champions of women’s rights in an intensely red Texas.

And right now, men are still overwhelmingly the ones fighting those fights at the top—women make up only 27 of Texas’s 150 representatives and only eight of the 31 senators in the Texas Capitol.

Women like Cato say they worry that reporting men who are fighting for good policy will undermine their cause.

Still, Cato said, “I know a lot of women who were really talented or really good but who left politics because it was just so toxic.”

“Until telling stories like mine and being honest about what happens in this building is more valued than loyalty and discretion… I don’t think it’s ever going to change,” she continued.

“And it has to change.”

*Several of the people interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous, as they still work in politics or journalism and feared retribution.

Sponsored Stories