Capitol Chronicle

The Senate's Witch Burning: Three longtime state employees dismissed -- with prejudice

In the Aug. 24 issue, I wrote about the firing of three staff members in the state Senate Media Services Office ("Senate Fires at Will"). I reported that three longtime Senate Media Services employees -- Katherine Staat, Barbara Schlief, and Shelley Smith -- had been fired Aug. 9 essentially without notice and with no clear reason for their dismissals, despite their many years of widely respected service to the Senate and the Capitol press corps. Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff told the San Antonio Express-News that the three staffers had been dismissed because of "apparent harassment, apparent abusive language, and unprofessional language and conduct." According to the Aug. 14 Express-News report by W. Gardner Selby, Ratliff said a Senate staff internal investigation produced a report documenting "a working environment and a management situation that was just unacceptable. The agency was in a state of disarray, and I think that alone justified the action." Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, chair of the Senate Administration, concurred with the decision (officially initiated by Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw), although Cain simultaneously praised the employees for their professionalism and said he considers Staat and Schlief "personal friends."

That was pretty much it. Every senator and reporter I could reach praised the staff members and were stunned by the firings. But the Senate Administration refused to discuss the dismissals any further, insisting they were a private "personnel matter." Senate secretary Spaw particularly refused to release the confidential "report" on the dismissals, even in redacted form (with names deleted), not even, she told me, if the fired staff members waived their personnel rights to keep the report concealed.


Report on a Witch Hunt

Mysteriously, that decision was reversed last week, and the Senate released a redacted copy of the report Sept. 6. I do not know -- although I have asked -- why the earlier decision was reversed (Ratliff, Cain, and Spaw have refused further comment), and I have since learned the Senate made no consistent attempt to ask the fired staff members to waive their rights to privacy.

I have now read the redacted report, titled "(Confidential) Internal Investigation of Media," which purports to present an investigation of a "sexual harassment" complaint by one employee against a person or persons unidentified (presumably one or all three of the fired staff members). The report, dated Aug. 1, was prepared by Senate Director of Human Resources Delicia Sams and Assistant Director David Armstrong, and submitted to Spaw (apparently seven days after the original "complaint").

I now know one very good reason why Spaw and the Senate should have continued to keep the report private -- indeed should have burned all the copies and started over again. On its face, this so-called report is almost entirely an unprofessional, irresponsible, hysterical, and shameless mixture of miscellaneous griping, gossip, rumors, hearsay -- and what appear to be, at least to this reader, patently unbelievable allegations. If, as Lt. Gov. Ratliff told the press, any personnel decision at all was based upon this report -- especially the dismissal of professional employees in good standing of respectively nine, 22 and 27 years -- then that decision was overreactive, indefensible, unjust, entirely without due process, and brings shame upon the excellent records of the Lt. Governor, his staff, Sen. Cain, and the entire Senate.

How can I know this? Because I can read.

Even lacking the employee names, it is apparent that the initial harassment complaint was made by a young female employee who began as an intern at the beginning of the 2001 session. Some time in midsession (despite this alleged constant and regular sexual harassment) the employee accepted a full-time position. Then in late July, she went to Delicia Sams and abruptly declared that she had been continually sexually harassed by one or all of her supervisors, and moreover alleged that such behavior "seems to be a regular, acceptable practice within the Senate Media office." According to her summarized Human Resources interview, the complaining employee described herself at length as a direct and constant target of a virtual cabal of lesbian, partisan, anti-Christian harassment, and seduction.

There are nearly four single-spaced pages of this ludicrous drivel (out of 19 pages of interview summaries), and I will not repeat most of it to avoid lending it any further credibility. But a single passage -- summarized by Delicia Sams and David Armstrong, and supposedly recounting a lunch near the Capitol -- captures the fantastical homophobic nonsense that characterizes the entire report of the young woman's interview: "She did not want to go, but [Name deleted] and [Name deleted] pressured her into going anyway. [Name deleted] and [Name deleted] proceeded to take her to a restaurant that was predominantly lesbian (the waitress, most of the couples at tables, etc.). There were only a couple of men in the whole restaurant. ... While at the restaurant [Name deleted] and [Name deleted] proceeded to tell her, once again, how horrible men are, how men cannot be trusted, and asked why doesn't she become a lesbian, etc. She told them again that it was not her thing and would never be her thing."

Apparently, neither Sams nor Armstrong asked the young woman either how she acquired the remarkable ability to identify women as lesbians by looking at them, or the name of this "predominantly lesbian" restaurant. That's too bad -- because of course such a restaurant does not exist. Certainly there are gay bars in Austin, and a handful of coffee shops known to be gay hangouts at night. But this "predominantly lesbian" restaurant near the Capitol is as unbelievable as the rest of this alleged lesbian recruitment conversation -- which I do not believe ever took place, and which competent interviewers (by their dismal work product, we can exclude Sams and Armstrong from that group) would immediately have recognized as a flaming red flag concerning their interviewee's credibility.

What else do we learn from this odious "report"?

That some current and former Media Services employees supposedly "randomly sampled" by Human Resources loved their jobs and their bosses, that others hated both. (The vote splits about down the middle, and that's being generous to the naysayers. I took a similarly "random" survey of two former employees and got identical results.)

That one of the bosses, in particular, may have had a short fuse and a hot temper, and was known to use profanity when addressing employees. Such behavior is wrong -- but if that were a summary firing offense, there wouldn't be a half-dozen bosses left in the entire Capitol, and the ghost of Bob Bullock would bring the place down with his bare hands. In any case, such allegations have literally nothing to do with a supposed complaint of "sexual harassment."

That by the standards of this hopelessly Pecksniffian report, when on the Senate floor John Carona called Royce West a "son-of-a-bitch," Carona was de facto guilty of sexual harassment.

And finally, that what was by Senate rules supposed to be a specific investigation of a specific complaint of "sexual harassment" became instead a horridly mismanaged fishing expedition for vague, unspecified crimes and misdemeanors of every imaginary kind, and against which the summarily fired employees were allowed no serious defense and no serious redress. I'd call it a witch hunt, but the witches were found, tried, convicted, and sent into exile before the hunt ever began.

In case you haven't guessed by now, Katherine Staat, Barbara Schlief, and Shelley Smith are all gay women (Schlief and Smith are partners), although people at the Capitol who know them well -- and I am not among those -- say they are not particularly "out" in their professional lives. But Senate management apparently heard the words "sexual harassment" and "lesbian" together, panicked like terrified schoolchildren, and fired three people -- in the final analysis -- because they were gay women who had been accused of something that the administration found unspeakable. Colleagues who had known these three women closely on a daily basis for many years suddenly and officially treated them as moral pariahs.

According to my reading of this report -- upon which Lt. Gov. Ratliff says he relied -- that is what I believe. In firing these three people, Lt. Gov. Ratliff, Sen. Cain, and Sec. Spaw -- whom I believe to be honorable people who have made a horrible mistake -- are in the process of destroying the careers of three excellent Senate employees, for no credible reason.

And I dearly hope that the Capitol press corps -- which thus far (with the honorable exception of W. Gardner Selby of the San Antonio Express-News) has not spoken -- will act on behalf of three people who by all accounts have served those reporters with distinction for many years, and that they will use their craft to try to reverse, or at least expose, this egregious injustice.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Senate, Katherine Staat, Barbara Schlief, Shelley Smith, Senate Media Services, Capitol press corps, Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, W. Gardner Selby, San Antonio Express-News, David Cain, Patsy Spaw, Director of Human Resources, Investigation of Media, Delicia Sams, Davi

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