© 2021
background_fid.jpg
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
HPPR News

Texas Capitol Lobbyist Cleared In Date Rape Drugging Probe Had History Of Misconduct Complaints

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin's most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member’s office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating “an office contest” in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to “shoot white yogurt” onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker’s office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that “had too much of a locker room environment.”

Dennis’ history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they're bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn't meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn’t acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

In the early evening of April 1, the two female legislative staffers joined a group of lobbyists for drinks at the Austin Club, a nearby haunt frequented by the Capitol crowd. According to the DPS report, the two women had recently received the coronavirus vaccine.

After a short time there, one of the women began to feel ill and left soon after. Her condition prompted a trip hours later to the emergency room, where the report says she was treated for dehydration, stomach pain and nausea. The second woman, meanwhile, had stayed with the group, and later left with another Capitol staffer she was romantically involved with, the report says.

In text messages later shared with the investigator, the second woman told her boyfriend and her co-worker’s mother that she had tested positive for the date rape drug GHB at a medical clinic the next morning.

Her co-worker soon after contacted DPS and raised the possibility that someone had put GHB in their drinks while at the Austin Club. DPS opened an investigation and briefed certain state leaders and lawmakers about the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Although he was not named publicly, word spread quickly through Capitol circles that Dennis, a lobbyist employed by HillCo who had been at the Austin Club gathering, was a target of the investigation.

But the accusation fell apart under investigation. The second woman had not been tested for GHB, the investigator found. According to his report, he found inconsistencies in her story and “observed [her] to be very deceptive” during an interview.

Throughout that interview, the investigator noted, she “attempted to sell … the reputation of Richard Dennis rather than articulate facts as to why Dennis or any other lobbyist or person at the table would have placed an adulterant” into the two staffers’ drinks. Her story, according to the report, “contradicted most if not all facts” that the investigator had learned.

The other staffer, meanwhile, also made references to Dennis not having “a great reputation” in interviews with the investigator, the report says.

The staffer began to cry, the report says, when the investigator told her about the second staffer’s inconsistencies and asked her if she thought Dennis could have drugged the two aides.

“I don’t,” she said, according to the report. “I don’t think I would’ve filed anything if I would’ve known from the beginning it wasn’t what I thought it was.”

The second woman, the investigator concluded, had manufactured the date rape drug story in an effort to conceal from her boyfriend the fact that she had gone home that night with another man. The ill effects both women felt may have been a result of drinking alcohol after receiving the coronavirus vaccine, the report said.

After authorities announced no crime had occurred, Dennis’ lawyers, David and Perry Minton, called the allegation “a devious plan to frame our client by an unscrupulous individual or individuals to cover up their own indiscretions.” And Buddy Jones, co-founder of HillCo Partners, said in an email to state lawmakers that “unfortunately, the lives of innocent people were adversely affected, most especially Rick Dennis.”

The Capitol machine had already expressed outrage over the allegation, though. Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, delivered a speech on the House floor, saying he was “disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.” A number of lawmakers and lobbyists wore pink one day “to stand in support and solidarity with” the alleged victim. Several House members declared their offices off limits to the accused lobbyist or the lobby firm. And most of the House’s female members signed on to an open letter that said they hoped “sends a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse.”

In a statement for this story, Bill Miller, the other HillCo co-founder, said the firm would not discuss Dennis “or any other employees of our firm.” He also said the allegation was “perpetrated by unscrupulous people for nefarious reasons to frame an innocent party.”

The atmosphere at the Texas Capitol has been well-documented in recent years. In 2017, the Daily Beast reported accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct in and around the Capitol and included allegations made against a number of current and former state lawmakers such as state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. A spokesperson for Miles at the time called the allegations “unfounded and implausible.”

Later, reporting by the Tribune and interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and staffers revealed that sexual harassment regularly goes unchecked at the Capitol — and that policies in the two chambers often relied on people in power with little incentive to enforce them.

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis’ LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker’s office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker’s chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed “made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable” and made Parker’s “office an unbearably hostile work environment.”

“We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first,” the letter said, “and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren.”

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would “sleep together before session is over.” Dennis also “repeatedly said to multiple people” that Young has “Fuck me eyes,” the letter said.

The letter also described “an office contest” Dennis held “in which he demanded that the winner be able to ‘shoot white yogurt onto the loser’s face.’” A female staffer lost “and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office,” the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn’t have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was “unfair.” But he did say that, “during that period of time,” Parker’s office “had too much of a locker room environment.”

“I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us,” Dennis said. “However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn’t being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well.”

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it “was not a contest, but rather an agreement” with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

“Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday,” he said. “Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner.”

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show “Modern Family” “and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons.” Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

“It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly,” Dennis said.

Dennis said he asked Parker after the letter surfaced if he could work from home, which he said he did until he left the office in November.

Asked to describe what led to his joining HillCo in early 2016, Dennis said he had decided that he “was ready for a new professional challenge” and “wanted to move to work outside the capitol.”

He then “sent out an email to my many professional contacts to inform them that I had decided to pursue new opportunities.”

One of those recipients, he said, was a friend who worked at the firm and suggested Dennis consider joining.

“I was interviewed and took a position,” Dennis said.

When Dennis started at HillCo in early 2016, he was joining one of the most prominent and lucrative lobbying firms in the state. Texas Monthly once included Miller, one of HillCo’s co-founders, on its list of the most powerful people in Texas, calling him “the fixer.” In 2004, the magazine noted, Miller arranged a meeting between then-House Speaker Tom Craddick and Pope John Paul II.

Jones, the firm’s other founder and a former chief of staff to former House Speaker Gib Lewis, is tied for first on Capitol Inside’s “Hired Guns” ranking of the state’s most powerful lobbyists.

Texas Ethics Commission records show the firm’s stable of lobbyists have roughly 200 clients — including H-E-B, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, United Airlines and the Dallas Cowboys — during the 2021 legislative session, bringing in at least $5 million. Dennis alone listed 27 clients this session, who have paid at least $221,000 for his services, though those contracts ended April 26, records with the ethics commission show.

Since Dennis’ hiring, the firm has been approached on at least two occasions by lawmakers or legislative aides expressing concern about Dennis’ behavior at the Capitol.

One legislative staffer, who asked not to be named to protect her career, told the Tribune that during the 2017 session, Dennis would visit the House Democrat’s office where she worked so often that “it felt like he’d come to seek me out.” While there, she said, he would often ask about “inappropriate things,” such as imploring her to name “the top five representatives [she’d] fuck.”

One day that spring, she said, Dennis walked over to her while she was standing near a copy machine. He stood behind her shoulder, she said, and whispered in her ear: “That’s how daddy likes it.”

Dennis said in a statement to the Tribune through his lawyers that such words “have never come out of my mouth” and called the allegation “absolutely false.”

His reason for visiting that office, he said, was “because a very dear male friend of mine worked there and we enjoyed catching up with one another on a frequent basis.”

The staffer shared the incident with Young, who had worked with Dennis during the 2015 session in Parker’s office and in 2017 was serving as committee clerk for the House Environmental Regulation Committee. Young relayed the information to her boss, then-state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who chaired the committee.

Pickett told the Tribune that he then called HillCo. He reached out to Vilma Luna, a woman at the firm and a Democratic former state lawmaker, in hopes that she would better convey the situation to her colleagues, he said. Pickett told Luna he did not want to see Dennis enter the House Democrat’s office for the rest of the legislative session. Luna said the firm would take care of it, he recalled.

“It was a very candid conversation,” Pickett told the Tribune. “I didn’t beat around the bush, and I was not congenial.”

Around the same time, Pickett said, he received a call from Dan Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, who told the lawmaker he would take care of the situation. Pearson did not return a request for comment for this story.

A day or two later, Pickett said, he called Luna again and asked whether the situation had been conveyed “to those who need to know.”

Luna said in a statement to the Tribune that she “was alerted of the situation in March 2017” and “immediately reported through the appropriate channels.”

“To my knowledge, it was handled by the office management,” she said.

The staff member who initially complained about Dennis told the Tribune that Dennis stopped by her boss’ office after Pickett’s conversation with HillCo, but that the visit was “extremely brief” once the lobbyist saw the staffer there. Dennis did not return again to the office for the rest of the session, she said, at least while she was there.

Dennis told the Tribune that he “never made the statement referenced” but “was made aware that a staffer had complained about me.” One of his bosses at HillCo, he said, “felt the best way to handle the situation was for me not to return to that office for the remainder of the session, which was about three weeks.” Dennis said he “was happy to honor that request.”

“It felt like standing up for myself and other staffers got Rick Dennis rewarded,” Young told the Tribune. “Tweeting supportive statements doesn’t show solidarity when you continue to pay a bad actor and keep him on state payroll. Listening to staffers and not rewarding bad actors shows solidarity.”

In 2019, after Pickett retired from office, Young landed a role as committee clerk for the House Higher Education Committee, which was chaired that session by state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and head of the House Democratic Caucus.

Young said that as the 2019 session got underway, Dennis, who had clients in the higher education realm, would stop by her office or walk into the committee hearing room while the Higher Education Committee was holding a hearing.

Young said the visits made her uncomfortable because of their history, which prompted her to tell Turner about it and share her experiences with Dennis. Once Turner was made aware of the situation, the lawmaker told the Tribune, he called Jones, the HillCo co-founder. Turner said Jones assured him Dennis’ visits to Young would stop.

Around the same time, Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, reached out to Young. Text messages reviewed by the Tribune indicate he told her “you have my word that we will address this quickly and remove any chance of this [recurring].”

The two met later that afternoon, Young said. Afterward, Pearson told Young he had already spoken with Jones about the matter and that the two planned to speak with Dennis later that day.

“At a minimum,” Pearson said in a text message to Young, “we will assure you he will not come in contact with you in the Committee process.”

Young said Dennis stopped coming by her office after that. Dennis offered the same response to this alleged incident as he did to the one in 2017 — that while he “never made the statement referenced,” he “was made aware that a staffer had complained about me” and “was happy to honor” a request from HillCo to not return to that office for the remainder of session.

Although the DPS investigation has concluded, leaders in the House have said conversations about improving the culture at the Capitol should continue.

“The Texas House remains firm in our commitment to move forward with legislation and administrative policy changes that create a safer work environment and culture for our entire Capitol community,” said Phelan, the House speaker, and state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a statement after the investigation ended.

Earlier that week, Phelan delivered a speech on the House floor and called for reforms to the chamber’s sexual misconduct policy. He said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to create an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. Phelan also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the chamber’s recently implemented sexual harassment prevention training from a virtual experience to an in-person one.

The committee “has prepared and distributed signage” to member and committee offices that outline the new email hotline, said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the Administration Committee, in a May 6 statement to the Tribune. The committee, he said, “is also currently in the process of implementing the new in-person workplace conduct training program.”

In the meantime, lawmakers in both chambers have taken legislative action on bills related to sexual harassment prevention training. On the House side, legislation spearheaded by Thompson, the Houston Democrat, passed the chamber earlier this month that would require sexual harassment prevention training for state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and registered lobbyists.

The bill passed the chamber 145-2, with Phelan casting a rare vote for it and Republican state Reps. Matt Schaefer of Tyler and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington voting against the bill.

In a statement submitted to the House journal, Schaefer said that while he supported the intent of the legislation, “the deficiency in due process for an accused citizen” prompted his opposition to it. Tinderholt said in his own statement submitted to the journal that he also “fundamentally” agreed with the intent of the legislation but disagreed with the jurisdiction it would give the director of the Texas Ethics Commission.

As she laid out the bill, Thompson asked members to applaud Phelan “for standing up for decency, for integrity.”

“It wasn’t pillow talk,” she said. “It was ... the right thing to do for a leader of this body.”

Jolie McCullough and Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Disclosure: HillCo, H-E-B and Microsoft have been financial supporters 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.

From The Texas Tribune.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5