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Ross Ramsey: Can Texas politicians really police themselves?

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Ross Ramsey, Syndicated Columnist

It's not going to be any easier to police sexual harassment in the Texas Capitol than it is to police ethics violations; the difference, at the moment, is that lawmakers have spent more time regulating ethical transgressions.

Ross Ramsey
Ross Ramsey

It's not easy to get arms-length enforcement of elected state officials. They don't have bosses, the way the rest of us have bosses.

The human resources departments in the House and the Senate can handle a lot of employee issues, but not a lot of officeholder issues.

And when lawmakers try to outsource enforcement of bad behavior, their efforts often fall short.

Just ask state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, an Austin Democrat who was indicted on misuse-of-office charges -- since dropped by embarrassed Travis County prosecutors who had followed a flawed investigative map assembled by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Dukes is up for re-election next year and is waiting to see what becomes of the line of opponents that formed up while she was in apparent legal trouble.

Her legal problems are in the rearview mirror now; the question is whether others who covet her position in the House will stick around.

She might be justified in thinking that a quiet and thorough investigation could have been done before the charges were brought to a grand jury, before the allegations against her were paraded before the media and the public.

Or maybe that the whole thing should have been handled by lawmakers who understand how legislators are supposed to be reimbursed for their expenses, the better to avoid what turned out to be bogus charges that she had broken the law.

What about the employees who turned her in, though?

If lawmakers were in charge of enforcing their own ethics laws, wouldn't they naturally form protective circles around their own? Wouldn't it be risky for employees (or lobbyists and other supplicants) to report lawmakers who get out of line?

Leaving the members of this particular gang in charge of gang discipline might be good for the members, but it can endanger everybody else.

Just look at the way sexual harassment is handled. While officials in the House and Senate say they haven't had any cases reported since at least 2011, they'd be handling any such cases themselves.

Legislators are working on new policies as you read this, concerned that they and their staffers aren't getting proper training on what is and is not proper, what is and is not allowed.

They've pointed out that, under current law, representatives and senators can't be forced to take the classes.

They're still wrestling with how to handle complaints, if they get any, and how to protect those who report powerful politicians who sexually harass employees and others.

A draft House policy suggests ways to report complaints internally, to other state agencies like the Texas Workforce Commission or to law enforcement.

Internal reports, the draft says, might be subject to public information laws -- a signal that reporting misbehavior in the Capitol might be traced back to the victims.

It's going to be hard to balance. This is crime, and it's also politics.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hit on that in a recent and well-traveled tweet on Alabama's Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexually assaulting minors: "Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections."

Politicians are concerned with both -- a pretty good reason to take criminal complaints out of their hands. It's a pretty good reason to be circumspect, too, since a false accusation on an inflammatory subject like sexual assault can wreck a reputation -- and reputation is the currency of a public life.

The current system doesn't work.

Victims of sexual harassment aren't protected. They find themselves reporting to legislators who are, in turn, asked to go after legislators whose favors and friendships they need in their work.

It's a conflict. Handing enforcement over to a third party -- other agencies, local prosecutors, whoever -- would remove that conflict. But you can see why some legislators might want to keep things close -- even (or especially) if they haven't done anything wrong. Look at what happened to Dukes.

ROSS RAMSEY is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans -- and engages with them -- about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.