CLINGING TO POWER
Women Say Texas Senator’s a Creep. Court Says He’s a Fraud. But He Won’t Leave Office.
Two more women have come forward with harassment allegations against Texas state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who was convicted on felony charges last week and faces a bribery trial in May.
Two more women came forward to The Daily Beast on Tuesday with new sexual-harassment allegations against Texas Democrat Carlos Uresti, who was convicted on 11 felony charges last week and faces a separate bribery trial in May.
The state senator has said he has no plans to step down despite calls to do so last week from fellow lawmakers and the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus in the wake of his conviction.
Several women previously came forward in December with allegations about the 54-year-old former Marine’s alleged misconduct, including one young reporter who claimed that Uresti put his hands on her thighs and “put his tongue down my throat.”
Another woman said that the career politician was “one of the worst” offenders in the notoriously sexist legislature.
“He would check me out all the time,” she told The Daily Beast last year. “He gave me inappropriate hugs. He put his hands on me, he ogled me. I would not get in an elevator with him. If members were having dinner and he was going to be there, I stopped going.”
Uresti denied all of those allegations to The Daily Beast in December, calling them “unfounded” and “erroneous.”
One of Uresti’s new accusers, Jenn Cervella, worked as the data director of the state Democratic Party. She said she met Uresti at a political event that she was staffing in 2015.
“We were being introduced and when we shook hands, he spun me around and said something like, ‘Damn, girl—you’re trouble,’” Cervella told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“He was ogling my body. He spun me around so he could see what I looked like from behind. He wanted a 360-view,” she said. “He made me feel like I was frozen and had no ability to say anything.”
Cervella said Uresti’s staff later apologized to her on the lawmaker’s behalf.
“I think his refusal to step down is a testament to his lack of respect for the institution of the Texas Legislature and the women who work to keep it running,” said Cervella. “This can’t stand. I don’t care what the right does with their reps. I want my party to walk the walk.”
Representatives for Uresti did not respond to requests for comment on this story on Tuesday.
Leading women’s organization Annie’s List asked Uresti and state Sen. Borris Miles to step down in December, immediately following The Daily Beast’s report on sexual harassment allegations against the two politicians.
As Margaret*, who had run-ins with both senators that were reported in December, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday: “It doesn’t seem like it’s made a single difference.”
“I have a suspicion that in an election the charges wouldn’t even make a dent,” she said.
The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus called on Uresti to resign his post last week, following his conviction on charges ranging from money laundering to wire fraud and securities fraud over his part in a now-defunct company’s Ponzi scheme. Prosecutors said Uresti “groomed” $900,000 out of a grieving mother and former client by using a sexual relationship with her to convince her to invest the money she won in her childrens’ wrongful-death suit. (Uresti denies that he had any sexual relationship with the woman.)
In the wake of the verdict, Uresti has been stripped of all committee assignments by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Several Republicans in the state have called on Uresti to resign.
But still, Uresti has said he has no immediate plans to give up his seat in the state Senate and plans to “absolutely” appeal the jury’s decision over last week’s convictions, according to the Texas Tribune. Ethics guidelines in the state allow him to stay in office until he completely exhausts the appeals process.
If Uresti doesn't resign, the Senate can expel him with a two-thirds vote, but members reportedly haven’t yet floated that option.
Meanwhile, Isabella*, a former Democratic campaign staffer in Texas who says she witnessed Uresti harassing another woman, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that she was disgusted and angry when Uresti denied the stories published in December.
“It made me feel more compelled to talk about it,” she said, explaining that she felt the need to support the women who came forward to accuse the state senator in December.
Isabella said she was with several female colleagues at an out-of-town political function in 2012 when Uresti joined them in the hotel lobby.
Uresti sat across from one of Isabella’s colleagues, she said.
“He was reaching his foot over to her barstool and trying to rub his foot onto her,” said Isabella. “We got up because she was uncomfortable and she wanted to leave.”
Isabella said she was vaguely aware that Uresti had allegedly been inappropriate with the colleague previously, but she had never seen it firsthand until that moment.
When the women returned to the hotel room, Isabella’s colleague told her that she’d been getting lewd text messages from the lawmaker.
“She told us that he had sent her text messages asking what color panties she was wearing. She showed all three of us the text messages,” Isabella said.
“One was from his wedding day,” she added. “I was shocked.”
In a similar incident, as reported by The Daily Beast, a woman claimed Uresti asked her—in the middle of a staircase at the state Capitol—whether she was wearing a polka-dot thong.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, the star witness in the lawmaker’s felony fraud trial last week said her sexual relationship with Uresti began with lewd text messages when he was still representing her as a personal injury lawyer.
After he was married, Uresti allegedly sent that woman, Denise Cantu, a picture of his penis taken in a bathroom stall while shopping at the mall with his wife, according to government records obtained by the newspaper.
“He’s just a disgusting person,” Isabella said. “I’m a Latina, and I want Latino elected officials and Latino leaders, but that’s not the kind of leader that we need.
“It’s too bad that he cannot stand up and take responsibility,” she said.
Isabella asked not to be identified in this story for fear that Uresti’s alleged victim would face professional retaliation. The Daily Beast viewed text message screenshots between Isabella and another witness in which they discussed what they had seen that day. A third friend told The Daily Beast that Isabella discussed the “footsie” incident in 2012 after it happened.
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro—who has been family friends with Uresti since the early 2000s—told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that he believes “it’s best for everyone involved if Carlos steps down.”
“The jury has now convicted him, and it’s going to severely compromise his ability to represent the people of his district,” he added. “I’ve known Carlos for a long time, and I think that ultimately he will step aside.”
Castro said he was unaware of any specific allegations against Uresti before The Daily Beast story in December but noted: “There’s still a long way to go in many workplaces, including political workplaces, to take women seriously when they make claims of harassment—and that includes the Texas Legislature.”
“Congress and the state legislature have a lot of work to do to make it a place where people feel safe and secure to go to work, to socialize, to be themselves and not have to worry about any kind of harassment.”
On Monday, KSAT-TV reported that Uresti’s co-defendant in his upcoming bribery trial has asked the judge to separate their trials over fear that the association would taint his case. Uresti and Vernon Farthing III are both accused of paying out and accepting bribes for a medical services contract between the Reeves County Correctional Center and Farthing’s company.
“Uresti has been accused of sexual harassment, extramarital affairs and drug use. Mr. Farthing has no criminal history whatsoever and has not been accused of wrongdoing,” said a court filing submitted by Farthing’s attorney.
Uresti and his fraud co-defendant Gary Cain will be sentenced in late June. They both face prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Women in Texas’ statehouse created their own online whisper network—a list of “bad men”—to help navigate the environment in which career politicians with stacks of allegations against them still thrive.
In November, the list accused 38 men of misdeeds ranging from pay discrimination and creepy comments to sexual assault. Women who contributed to the document did so anonymously.
But despite the pervasive sexism and harassment in the statehouse, little has changed in the aftermath of allegations.
Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed that the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit investigate the claims made against lawmakers, but that initiative would require funding that has not yet been promised.
The Texas House of Representatives has revised its decades-old sexual harassment policy in the wake of the reports, but the Texas Senate has held only one hearing on the subject. Both chambers have systems for destroying sexual-harassment complaints, which are haphazardly maintained.
According to the Texas Observer, complaints filed on paper in the House are destroyed just five years after they are investigated.
Margaret described the tepid response to the allegations as “disheartening” but unsurprising.
“It’s almost as though the #metoo movement is powerless in Texas,” she said.