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Women allege two decades of sexual harassment from former Texas GOP staffer

 Aron Lionel Peña III at CPAC 2021.
Aron Peña for Texas/Facebook
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Aron Lionel Peña III at CPAC 2021.

Aron Lionel Peña III, a former district director for Congresswoman Mayra Flores’ congressional office and Texas GOP staffer, has been accused of sexual harassment from multiple women — including some who work in GOP organizations and campaigns. Peña denies the allegations.

Content warning: Descriptions of sexual and physical abuse.

All victims are referred to by pseudonyms and some details are intentionally vague to maintain anonymity due to their reports of threats, experiences of violence and fear of retaliation.

In 2004, Stephanie was 18 when she started seeing Aron Lionel Peña III. By the time they ceased contact, she said she’d been threatened, abused, shamed, and traumatized. But she was neither the first nor last woman who reported the now 42-year-old Peña’s alleged abuse and his family’s alleged complicity.

Stephanie is one of four women TPR spoke to about alleged sexual harassment and abuse by Peña, Congresswoman Mayra Flores' former district director.

“He is a predator. And he did it to women before me,” Stephanie said. “And now to find out that there's so many more women just breaks my heart.”

In a statement to TPR, Peña "emphatically" denied the allegations, calling them "politically motivated."

Peña no longer works in Flores’ office due to health issues, according to Cameron County GOP Chairperson Morgan Cisneros Graham.

But a victim familiar with the matter said Flores’ office fired Peña after she reported his sexual misconduct.

Flores' campaign and office did not respond to TPR's requests for comment about his employment status.

Stephanie met 24-year-old Peña, who then was a Democrat, in a college algebra class at the University of Texas Pan-American (now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley).

Her family was wary of their friendship.

“There were concerns because he did have a reputation,” Stephanie said. “I had other family members come forward to me saying 'be careful with him, so-and-so had a bad experience with him.' And I didn't believe it. I just thought they were being overprotective,” she said.

She said the friendship quickly turned romantic, and she developed strong feelings for Peña. But later, she said, he cheated on her, and she tried to leave. Stephanie said that Peña tried to get her pregnant to make her stay with him.

He continued pursuing Stephanie even after marrying someone else and having a child. “He would always kind of manipulate himself back into my life,” Stephanie said.

Someone close to Peña reported Stephanie to Peña’s family, and his relatives told her to back off. Though he hadn’t hurt her before, his family asked her whether it was physical abuse that kept her from leaving him.

Stephanie said she was taken aback by the query because, until then, Peña had never hurt her, and she told his family as much. However, when she tried to move on, away from him, she said that things changed, and she understood why the family had asked why they remained in contact.

“When I finally did make a real, honest effort to get away from him and start talking to other people,” Stephanie said, “that's when he became violent. He became insanely jealous. And that's when he started to physically and sexually abuse me,” she said.

According to Stephanie, Peña followed her around and went out of his way to take the same classes. Peña, she said, also physically attacked her. She recalled a time he had pinned her between a door and wall. This episode, she said, left her with a large bruise on her back.

Stephanie said she attempted to document the abuse but he destroyed her phone when he knew there were any pictures or evidence of him hurting her.

She said the violence continued and the threats escalated.

“He told me he would ‘Natalee Holloway’ me or ‘Laci Peterson’ me if I ever tried to leave,” Stephanie said, referring to two infamous cases where a woman went missing or was murdered.

The situation worsened, and Stephanie warned her family that if she wound up dead, they would know who killed her. In desperation, Stephanie contacted Peña’s family for help.

She said his stepmother said they’d try to help but they were hampered by the worry of bad publicity that could affect the re-election campaign of Peña’s father. Peña is the son of Aaron L. Peña, who has served in office in various roles. He is the brother of Adrienne Peña Garza, chairperson of the Hidalgo County GOP.

Peña's sister and his father did not respond to TPR’s requests for comment regarding these allegations.

In an effort to keep her from speaking out, Stephanie said that Peña would blackmail her with photos he took after an incident of sexual abuse.

The screenshot below shows an exchange between Stephanie and Peña. The top message is Stephanie telling him to leave her alone. The last message shows Peña threatening to release these images after she told someone close to him that he was still contacting her.

 Screenshot of Facebook message exchange between Stephanie and Aron Lionel Peña III from 2010.
Stephanie
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Screenshot of Facebook message exchange between Stephanie and Aron Lionel Peña III from 2010.

Stephanie said that these sorts of threats and the shame of being with him while he was married kept her from reporting him.

“I knew that if I ever tried to speak out,” Stephanie said, “I was going to be victim-blamed because of the fact that I was the other woman, the homewrecker, whatever you want to call it, and I was very ashamed of that.”

She said she contacted police for the first time in 2008 after Peña stole her wallet in order to get her to his house to retrieve it. When she arrived with the cops, she said, Peña panicked, threw the wallet and ran inside.

 Picture of Stephanie's 2008 police report where she alleged Aron Lionel Peña III stole her wallet.
Stephanie
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Picture of Stephanie's 2008 police report where she alleged Aron Lionel Peña III stole her wallet.

Stephanie said that she and Peña stopped all contact in 2010, around the time he switched parties from Democrat to Republican and moved up in conservative politics.

More than a decade after their initial meeting in 2004, Peña started contacting another alleged victim, Arabella, but this time he utilized his position in the GOP to move from a virtual social media chat to meeting her in person.

According to Arabella, she was 17 when Peña first reached out via the Facebook comment section of a conservative-leaning article. Part of a high school assignment, she said, required interaction on social media.

Arabella said that Peña replied to her comment. “He started messaging me saying that I was very brave, that I was very beautiful, that I was very smart and mature for my age for thinking in conservative ways,” she said.

Peña’ was 30 at the time. His actions alarmed the adults around Arabella.

“We actually used that screenshot or whatever back then as a ‘be careful’ for online predators type of situation,” she said.

Arabella said that when she was still 18, Peña sent her several Facebook messages asking her out.

Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.
Arabella
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Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.

  Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.
Arabella
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Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.

 Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.
Arabella
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Personal
Facebook message from Aron Lionel Peña III to Arabella when she was eighteen.

They crossed paths again when she began studying political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley after one of her classmates recommended she speak to the president of the University’s Young Republican National Federation (this chapter is now defunct).

But Arabella didn’t know her classmate had actually connected her with Peña.

“I didn't know who he was. He was just setting himself off as like, president of UTRGV Young Republicans,” she said.

Arabella said she agreed to meet this person for lunch to discuss a future with the organization, not knowing it was Peña she would be meeting. And then he walked into the restaurant. She said he forced her to sit next to him and assaulted her while she tried to leave.

“I was trying to push him away,” Arabella said. “And he kept pulling me back. And he grabbed the back of my head to try to force me to kiss him,” she recalled. “He's like, 'You don't know how much I like this even more. Because I like a fight. Like, I like the struggle.' ”

Despite the encounter, Arabella said she volunteered for the campaign of one of Peña’s family members because they had promised protection from Peña and an opportunity to gain political experience.

Arabella said that in that context, too, Peña still directed sexually inappropriate remarks at her, but this time his family members publicly chastised him. She felt indebted to the candidate so she continued to volunteer while tolerating Peña's remarks.

Arabella said the abuse escalated at a conference in Austin. She was 19, and she opted out of clubbing with the other underage peers.

That night, while Arabella lay wrapped in a blanket and alone in her room, she said that Peña crept into her bed and started touching her.

Terrified, she ran out of the room and hid under a stairwell. She said that when she returned to her room, other Hidalgo County GOP members trickled in and started having sex with the other girls in these shared quarters. Arabella added that one couple even had sex on her bed while she was still in it.

“I was hearing everything,” Arabella said. “And it was just very, like, just super traumatic. You know, just, it was just awful,” she said.

Arabella said she reached her limit of tolerating so much questionable behavior when she attended a major event out of the state with the organization and found herself in a car with members of the Peña-Garza family. Peña wasn’t present.

She said there were not enough seats in the vehicle to accommodate everyone, so she was forced to sit on the laps of two men, who then grabbed and touched her. Other passengers in the vehicle asked her to smile while they took a video of the incident with their phones.

“They would like, hit me and be like, you should be lucky you're here,” Arabella said. “I'm like, trying to smile. But I was, like, crying.”

Following the event, Arabella distanced herself from the Hidalgo County GOP chapter and worked for the party outside of its purview.

Arabella said this move enraged the family because they felt entitled to control anyone working on a Republican campaign in the county. By this time, Peña’s sister, Adrienne Peña-Garza, was the chapter’s chairperson.

Arabella said she faced every kind of harassment from leadership within the Hidalgo County GOP. The family began spreading rumors, publicly insulting her, and accusing her of stealing. According to Arabella, they also filed complaints with her employer.

Arabella said that Peña would follow her and try to persuade her to get in his car while she was out canvassing. However, at this point, her parents accompanied her for her safety and thwarted his attempts.

According to Arabella, in 2022, after an altercation at a GOP meeting, she sought help from law enforcement. She filed a police report against Peña for harassment but said the cops weren’t helpful. The investigator didn’t initiate contact, so she had to reach out first. And, once they spoke, she didn’t feel he was on her side.

Scan of Stephanie's 2022 police report where she reports Aron Lionel Peña III's alleged long-time harassment.
Arabella
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Scan of Stephanie's 2022 police report where she reports Aron Lionel Peña III's alleged long-time harassment.

“He goes, ‘Oh yeah, you're the one that's like trying to go against the Peña-Garza family. You know, if you go against them, they're going to countersue you back for defamation of character, libel’ or whatever,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘crap, even the detective is in with it.’”

According to Arabella, she told the investigator she still wanted to pursue charges, but they never contacted her again.

There have also been allegations against Peña and his family from teens seeking work as volunteers or political staffers in the Republican sphere. One of those teens is Michelle.

Another teen who is close to Michelle, Grace, said she witnessed disturbing situations between Michelle and Peña. Grace said she and Michelle met Peña in 2020 when she and Michelle were around 16 or 17. They crossed paths often in GOP spaces where she said he would try chatting with her and being her friend.

When Michelle turned 18, Peña sent her $50 from his personal Cashapp claiming it was from Texas Victory, one of the organizations associated with the Republican National Convention.

Grace said, unlike Michelle, she did not receive $50 from Peña for her 18th birthday. This made his gift to Michelle all the more alarming for Grace.

 A screenshot of Aron Lionel Peña III sending Michelle fifty dollars on her eighteenth birthday.
Anonymous
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A screenshot of Aron Lionel Peña III sending Michelle fifty dollars on her eighteenth birthday.

Peña continued insinuating himself into Grace and Michelle’s activities within the party and trying to get close to Michelle, according to Grace.

Grace said that Peña would even drive Michelle and other volunteers to and from events, picking them up and dropping them off at their homes. Because of his behavior, and the discomfort Michelle expressed about it, Grace agreed that she should not leave Michelle alone with Peña.

“[Michelle] didn't feel comfortable being alone with him. So I tried really hard to make sure that that didn't happen,” Grace said.

However, according to Grace, one night, Peña insisted on dropping her off first. It would mean Michelle would be left alone with him. Grace said he grew angry when she and Michelle protested and, out of fear, Grace left.

“We kept telling him like, 'no, it's fine. Just drop [Michelle] off first,' and he wouldn't listen to us — to the point where he got mad,” she said.

Grace said Michelle told her Peña assaulted Michelle in the car.

After the assault, Grace went to Peña’s sister, Hidalgo County GOP Chairwoman Adrienne Peña-Garza, for help keeping him away from their group. She secretly recorded the conversation.

In the recording, Grace tells Peña-Garza what her brother allegedly did to Michelle: “He was touching her, like, in her thighs. And she kept telling her to stop, and he would just laugh. And she was scared of making him angry because he was driving.”

But Grace said Peña-Garza was dismissive, saying, “What am I supposed to do without him? Like, he gets everything done around here. He's my rock.”

In the audio, Peña-Garza added, “Aron's the one that's putting [information] in the system. So who would do it if he wasn't here?” She then admitted she could keep him away but wouldn’t. “And so I don't need to tell him to come but who is going to do [the task]?”

Grace said that after this exchange with Peña-Garza, she and Michelle did not feel safe returning to Hidalgo County GOP headquarters or other spaces where they would see Peña. Though she had long heard about Pena’s problematic behavior, she said fear of his family kept public allegations at bay.

According to Grace, everyone feared retaliation. “Nobody wants to make that family angry so that they can keep their jobs or, like, their places within the Republican Party down here. So they just ignore what Aron's doing so that they don't look bad,” Grace said.

After the fruitless interaction with Peña's sister, Grace said they sought help outside of the Hidalgo County GOP. Morgan Cisneros Graham, the state committeewoman for Senate District 27 with the Republican Party of Texas, said this wasn’t the first time he’d been reported.

Graham said someone who worked in the Hidalgo County GOP contacted her in April 2022 and shared details about Peña’s predatory behavior towards young female staffers.

Graham told them to pass on the message to John Beckmeyer, the executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, including all of the details and evidence they had of Peña’s abuse and written complaints. The committeewoman also told Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi about the alleged behavior.

Related: Texas GOP responds to harassment allegations against former Mayra Flores staffer

Beckmeyer launched an investigation into the allegations. But Graham said it fizzled out after victims did not come forward. Peña then joined Mayra Flores' office after her congressional win.

But this was before Grace and Michelle reached out to the College Republicans. Previous efforts to remove Peña from his position failed, but this time, Grace said, the organization assured them he’d be terminated.

Over the span of almost two decades, Peña continued to move up in Rio Grande Valley politics, despite repeated accusations of sexually harassing, grooming and assaulting young women.

Accusations against Peña continued surfacing. However, he was allowed to hold powerful positions where he could access and exploit his authority over teenage girls and young women.

This indifference and inaction, said Stephanie, is what made her decide to speak up after so many years of fearing what he and his family would do if she did.

She said someone has to stop Peña from sexually, physically and psychologically tormenting young women, and she hoped that spotlighting the issue by sharing her experience will put an end to Peña’s sexual abuse and his family’s harassment.

“Unless something is done, he's going to continue to do it. That's a fact,” Stephanie said. “And more people are gonna suffer.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault and needs guidance, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 provides "confidential 24/7 support" in English and Spanish.

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Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Carolina Cuellar
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