Human Rights Complaint Filed Against State Senate

Three former Senate staffers have filed suit for discriminatory firing.

On Jan. 24, former Senate Media Services director Katherine Staat filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Human Rights against the Texas State Senate, charging sexual discrimination and retaliation. Staat was dismissed from her job Aug. 9, 2001, by Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw, following a brief investigation of "sexual harassment" charges in Media Services. Two other department supervisors, Barbara Schlief and Shelley Smith, were fired the same day. Staat was a 27-year employee of the Senate; Schlief had served 22 years, Smith nine.

Senate officials have refused to comment on the firings, although at the time of the dismissals Lt. Gov. 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." Ratliff said he based his conclusions on an investigative report of the sexual harassment charges produced by the Senate's Dept. of Human Resources. Last fall, the Chronicle received a redacted (with names deleted) version, still labeled "draft." In the report, based on partial transcriptions of interviews with Senate employees, one female employee makes allegations of lesbian sexual harassment against one or all of the three supervisors. Some employees complain of harsh supervision, while others praise the supervisors and the department's working atmosphere.

All three women deny the charges. They say the sexual harassment investigation was mismanaged from the beginning, and that they had no real opportunity to defend themselves before they were summarily dismissed. Schlief described "everything in the report" as "wholly false or distorted," and said, "They gave us no opportunity to rebut the allegations, no opportunity to face the accusers, no details of the allegations until after we were all fired, and in fact it was months before we knew all the details." Asked if she and her partner, Shelley Smith, intend to file a human rights complaint or take other legal action, Schlief declined to comment.

Staat's complaint to the TCHR makes specific allegations of gender discrimination and retaliation. According to her attorney, Karl Bayer, no male supervisor at the Senate has ever been dismissed after charges of sexual harassment. Staat was informed by Spaw that she herself was not the subject of the harassment investigation, he added. "Kathy cooperated fully with the investigation, although she did tell Spaw she thought it should be handled by an outside investigator and not internally by Senate Human Resources. But she cooperated fully in the investigation and was fired -- that's the basis of the retaliation claim." Bayer said he has attempted since August to arrange some kind of mediation or settlement between Staat and the Senate, but his offers have been rejected or received no response. "That's still an open question," he added.

Asked if Staat could also make a claim that she was discriminated against because she is gay, Bayer said he is considering that charge, but the lack of anti-discrimination laws against gays and lesbians makes it much more difficult. "If there were a statute -- even a local ordinance -- that made it clear that an employer could not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, then I would feel more comfortable about going ahead and filing that. For the moment, we've decided to stick with established law."

Bayer says the TCHR has 180 days to investigate and act on the complaint. Spaw told the Chronicle that the Senate has not yet received official notice of the complaint, and that she would have no comment. If the commission fails to act or rejects the complaint, Bayer said, he will consider further legal action.

Staat, who remains unemployed but is looking for another position in government service, said she filed the human rights complaint because she believes the Senate administration left her no choice. "Negotiations have not been successful," she said. "Nothing has really changed in my respect and love for the Senate -- but on the other end of the scale, is my feeling that I have to stand up for myself."

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