Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has a well-earned reputation for vindictiveness. But she’s now reaped poetic justice. Yesterday the Texas Democrat resigned her posts as chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation following a wrongful termination suit filed earlier this month by an ex-female staffer identified in court documents as “Jane Doe.” The former aide, who seeks $75,000 in damages, had been fired last spring after stating her intent to pursue legal action against a former foundation employee, Damien Jones, who allegedly raped her back in the fall of 2015, a time during which she interned for another House member. Lee has denied wrongdoing from the start. But increasing pressure from black colleagues helped persuade her to step down.
Now in her 13th term in office, Sheila Jackson Lee represents the heavily black 18th District of Texas, which encompasses a large portion of Houston. Over the years, she has demonstrated a large ethical blind spot. In a particularly flagrant case of self-dealing, Rep. Jackson Lee in the summer of 2012 intervened to restore 70 percent of the Medicare payments to Houston’s Riverside General Hospital blocked by the Department of Health and Human Services following revelations that hospital management had obtained $158 million from HHS through fraudulent overbillings. That October, hospital CEO Earnest Gibson III and several other individuals were arrested for their roles in the scheme. It is of more than passing significance that Rep. Jackson Lee’s husband, Elwyn Lee, for many years had served on the board of directors of the hospital, which is located in her district.
Rep. Jackson Lee also showed that she could be bought back in November 2008, when she went on a Citigroup-funded junket to the Caribbean island of St. Maartens along with four other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The excursion, led by then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, whose penchant for IRS tax avoidance was coming to light, by any reasonable standard had violated recently-established ethics rules against House members accepting multi-day corporate trips. The staged event looked like a pat on the back from Citigroup for voting for the Bush administration’s $700 billion financial industry bailout proposal, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The House Ethics Committee, under pressure from the black caucus, did not impose sanctions on any of the congressional participants.
Rep. Lee also has a way of expressing her black identity in ways bordering on self-parody. In 2003, she complained about the National Weather Service’s use of “lily white” names for hurricanes. “All racial groups should be represented,” she remarked, suggesting “Keisha, Jamal and Deshawn” as names for future hurricanes. In 2010, at an NAACP meeting, the congresswoman denounced Tea Party activists as “racist” and implied that they were Ku Klux Klansmen without bed sheets. And in September 2017, on the House floor, she denounced President Trump for “racism” after he criticized ritual kneel-downs by black NFL players during the pregame playing of the national anthem; as an act of solidarity for the Congressional Record, she kneeled down. These and other bizarre gestures on a wide variety of issues, to say nothing of her outrageous behavior on commercial air flights, ought to lead one to believe that this woman is a few cards short of a full deck.
This year has been an unfortunate one for Rep. Jackson Lee. On January 11, one of her former employees, identified only as “Jane Doe,” sued her former boss and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), the nonprofit arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, for retaliating against her in the wake of her declared intent to file a complaint against the foundation. Back in October 2015, Ms. Doe, at the time 19 years old and working as an intern for Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., allegedly was raped by Damien Jones, the foundation’s then-intern coordinator. She claims that Jones, who was 30 at the time, got her “blackout drunk” before he and possibly his roommate sexually assaulted her in their Washington, D.C. apartment. The young woman then reported the incident to District of Columbia police. A police rape kit confirmed Jones’ DNA on her breasts, though not on her underwear. Ms. Doe did not file charges, but she did report the assault to Rep. Sewell and the CBCF, which subsequently placed Jones on leave. A year later, in October 2016, the young woman informed the foundation that she planned to file a lawsuit, though she did not do so at that time.
The memories did not fade. In March 2018, “Jane Doe,” by now a staffer for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, indicated to the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Glenn Rushing, that she intended to file a complaint against the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation over the incident. She also asked Rushing to arrange a private meeting with her boss. Rep. Jackson Lee, who happened to be the foundation’s chairman of the board, declined this request. Several weeks later, Lee, seeing a threat to her career, fired the woman. Jane Doe’s court filing this January read: “The Office of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and CBCF (for which Representative Jackson Lee serves as the Board Chair) unlawfully retaliated against Ms. Doe after Ms. Doe threatened to sue the CBCF because another CBCF employee (Damien Jones) raped Ms. Doe while he was Ms. Doe’s supervisor.” Ms. Doe is seeking $75,000 in damages for unlawful termination of employment, intentional interference with employment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Rep. Jackson Lee’s office quickly responded with heated denial. An official written statement put it this way: “The Office adamantly denies the allegations that it retaliated against, or otherwise improperly treated, the plaintiff. It is against office policy to discuss specific details about internal personnel matters.” The congresswoman asserted her refusal to step down from the CBC Foundation. Her chief of staff, Glenn Rushing, told BuzzFeed News, “We had nothing to do with any of the actions that have been cited, and the person was not wrongfully terminated.” Ironically, Congresswoman Lee may be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Last year, she sponsored legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and aggressively opposed the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after Kavanaugh was accused, without any corroboration, of acts of sexual assault during his high school years. Yet when faced with a far more credible charge of sexual assault on her own political turf, she somehow doesn’t think it’s an issue.
Denial or no denial, the Congressional Black Caucus, now with more than 50 members, was getting nervous over the possibility of a public relations disaster. For the sake of damage control, if not necessarily high principle, CBC members pressured Rep. Jackson Lee to resign from her foundation post. Several of her colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations also were beginning to freak out. Yesterday afternoon she relented. Rep. Lee announced her resignation from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the House Judiciary Committee’s crime and terrorism subcommittee. Elsie Scott, the foundation’s interim president, perhaps sighing with relief, praised Rep. Jackson Lee as someone who “values the foundation’s ideals and does not want to be a distraction during the legal proceedings of the suit.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., likewise complemented her decision as ensuring “the subcommittee’s important work continues.”
One finds it difficult to sympathize with Sheila Jackson Lee. In her two dozen years as a member of the House of Representatives, she has demonstrated, time and again, a pattern of corruption and racial shakedown artistry. It is ironically fitting that her downfall, which for now is temporary, has occurred due to a complaint by someone who not long ago was on her payroll. As for the alleged rapist, Damien Jones, he was last seen working on the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex. A contrite campaign spokesman recently issued this statement: “The Beto for Texas campaign was absolutely not aware of these allegations until today and no longer has a relationship with Damien Jones.” Perhaps voters in the 18th congressional district of Texas will terminate their working relationship with Sheila Jackson Lee in 2020.