Did Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee fire a staffer for suing the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation over an alleged rape? A new lawsuit takes aim at the Texas Democrat for retaliation in an attempt to quash the plaintiff’s attempts to seek justice through the civil courts. Buzzfeed picked up on the filing last night after it first appeared on the US district court docket in DC yesterday afternoon:
A former staffer for Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee claims in a new lawsuit that the lawmaker retaliated against her and fired her because she was planning to pursue legal action over an alleged rape by a former employee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
The woman, identified in court papers by the pseudonym Jane Doe, alleges she was raped in October 2015, when she was a 19-year-old intern for the CBCF, by the foundation’s intern coordinator at the time, Damien Jones. The woman said she reported the alleged rape to police and told several people, including Rep. Terri Sewell, her former boss and a distant relative of her mother’s, but did not pursue legal action at the time.
Several years later, when Jane Doe was working for Jackson Lee, the woman decided she did want to pursue legal action, and told Jackson Lee’s chief of staff Glenn Rushing in early March 2018. The woman alleges that she asked to speak with Jackson Lee about it, but a meeting never happened, and several weeks later she was fired. Jackson Lee is chair of the board for the CBCF.
To make this even more interesting, the man named in the allegation still works in Democratic electoral circles. Jones most recently worked on Robert “Beto” O’Rourke’s senate campaign in Texas. The O’Rourke organization told Buzzfeed that they hadn’t heard anything about this before getting their call, but that the team “no longer has a relationship with Damien Jones.”
There are a number of elements that have to be satisfied in this lawsuit and story, starting with the alleged rape itself and the CBCF’s legal liability to it, before we get to retaliation by Jackson Lee. The lawsuit against Jackson Lee contains the elements of Jane Doe’s complaint against Jones and the CBCF. Doe alleges that the CBCF required her and other interns to participate in a 2015 fundraising event at their headquarters. She alleges that Jones separated her from other interns, asked her out to dinner, and plied her with alcohol during and after the dinner. Doe suggests that Jones might have drugged her drinks at his apartment, and pressured her to smoke marijuana.
At some point, Doe tried to contact someone for a rescue:
At one point that evening, Ms. Doe texted her friend Victoria Gray, stating: “Help,” “I’m want t [sic] to go home,” and “I’m ready to cry.” Ms. Gray responded and asked where Ms. Doe was. Ms. Doe replied that she did not know, and “I need you” and “No joke.” Ms. Gray asked Ms. Doe again where she was, and to send her “pin” location via text so that Ms. Gray could send a car to pick her up. Ms. Doe attempted to do so, but her phone was unable to send Ms. Gray the specific address. Ms. Doe then sent a number of messages that are indiscernible, mostly just jumbles of letters. Ms. Gray asked who she was with, and Ms. Doe replied that she was with her “[intern] coordinator.” Ms. Gray told Ms. Doe to have that person call her. Ms. Doe responded “[I don’t know] how” and “Help.” Ms. Gray then asked again for the address so that she could send a car for Ms. Doe, but Ms. Doe stopped responding to her text messages.
Jones then allegedly had sexual relations with Doe without her consent, leaving her with pain in her vagina, hip, neck, and mouth, along with nausea and a potential urinary tract issue. Jones denied having any sexual contact with Doe when she challenged him, but she went to a hospital for a sexual assault exam anyway:
Also that day, Ms. Doe went to the hospital where a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner administered an exam. The examiner noted swelling and redness in Ms. Doe’s pelvic area, swelling on her lower back, and that one of her finger nails was broken. The examiner also noted blood and a “yellow stringy discharge” coming from Ms. Doe’s cervix and vagina. The examiner took Ms. Doe’s pants as evidence, gave her medication, conducted a toxicology test, and swabbed several areas of Ms. Doe’s body.
That turned out to be important, as the lawsuit alleges that Jones’ DNA was found on her breast, although a DNA test on the sperm produced an insufficient profile. That would indicate that a sexual encounter took place, but still leaves open whether any consent had been given. Despite the police investigation, it doesn’t appear charges were ever filed in the case. However, the next year, Doe notified the CBCF that she might pursue legal action against them, although she decided against it at that time.
The year after that, Doe got a job with Jackson Lee, and then found out that Jones was interested in taking a job in the same office. The CBCF had extended an invitation to Jones to speak at an event two months prior to Doe’s hiring, even though the group was well aware of Doe’s allegation. Doe got the office to refrain from hiring Jones, but she alleges that her desire to proceed with the lawsuit against the CBCF as expressed to her supervisor on March 9, 2018 led directly to her termination on March 29th. She was told that her termination was due to “budgetary issues,” but Doe alleges that two other less senior staffers were retained at or above her own salary at that time.
If that’s the case, it certainly seems like a retaliatory firing. In the private sector, that proximity alone would raise all sorts of red flags. That would also be separate from any consideration as to the veracity of the underlying allegation of rape and the liability of the CBCF for it if it happened. The CBCF lawsuit may have gone nowhere anyway, but this lawsuit could have legs.
Politically, it’s a disaster for Jackson Lee. It just smells bad, as though her office threw a potential date-rape victim under the bus to protect Jackson Lee’s own vested interests. Doe throws a couple of other issues into the lawsuit, alleging that Jackson Lee uses her congressional staff for campaign activities, that could also get her into some hot water with the Ethics Committee. However, it’s the #MeToo backfire potential that holds most of the risk for Jackson Lee — assuming the media digs into this story.
That’s probably not going to happen, though. For one thing, the lawsuit is complicated, and the media likes simpler #MeToo stories. For another, they much prefer those with male villains. And finally, most of the media will be loathe to attack a Democratic woman for running roughshod over a rape victim, even if she did. Kudos to Buzzfeed for digging into this, but keep expectations low for follow-ups by any other major outlets.