WASHINGTON — 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.
Jones did not return requests for comment. After leaving the CBCF in late 2015, he continued to work in Democratic politics and recently served as the regional political director for former representative Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign. Chris Evans, a spokesperson for the O’Rourke campaign, said in an email to BuzzFeed News, “The Beto for Texas campaign was absolutely not aware of these allegations until today and no longer has a relationship with Damien Jones.”
Rushing told BuzzFeed News in a phone call that “We had nothing to do with any of the actions that have been cited and the person was not wrongfully terminated.” He declined to answer additional questions.
Jackson Lee's office later released a statement pointing to the congresswoman's record on civil rights and non-discrimination measures, and saying that 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."
"Although the Congresswoman is eager to respond substantively, she will do so only at the appropriate time, as the court docket dictates. The Congresswoman is confident that, once all of the facts come to light, her Office will be exonerated of any retaliatory or otherwise improper conduct and this matter will be put to rest," Jackson Lee's office said. "While we still deny the allegations, we are especially concerned about Ms. Doe and only want the best for her and the many, many young people that the Congressional office has supported, encouraged, and provided opportunities for over 20 years."
Marc Banks, a spokesperson for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that he did not know whether there had been any communication between the foundation and Jackson Lee's office about the rape allegation against Jones or Jane Doe's plan to sue the foundation. But he said that a decision to fire a congressional staffer was "outside the purview of the foundation."
"We would have no reason to harm the former intern," Banks said.
Banks said that the foundation took "immediate and swift action" to fire Jones after investigating Jane Doe's allegations, but he was "not privy" to what the foundation learned in the course of that review.
Lawyers for Jane Doe declined to comment.
The lawsuit is dated Jan. 11, but only appeared on the public docket in the US District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday afternoon.
According to the complaint, on Oct. 24, 2015, Jones invited Jane Doe to dinner, where she said he ordered a large quantity of drinks. She said that he then took her back to his home, poured more drinks, and that her memory became foggy about the rest of the night. She said she sent a series of text messages to a friend that night, including, “Help,” “I’m want t[sic] to go home,” and “I’m ready to cry,” and told the friend she was with the intern coordinator but did not know where she was.
The woman said she remembered Jones engaging in sexual activity with her, including forcing her to perform oral sex. In the complaint, she said she did not consent to any sexual activity. The next morning, she said she woke up naked in Jones’ bed “with his arms and legs around her,” and left. She said she experienced pain in her vagina and elsewhere on her body.
Jane Doe said later that day she texted Jones to ask what happened, and he replied, “Nothing. You threw up everywhere. That’s it.” When she asked why she was naked, he told her to call him. Jane Doe says that he told her that he took off her clothes and put her in the shower, and he denied they had sex.
Jane Doe said she went to a hospital and had a sexual assault exam. She later reported the alleged assault to the Metropolitan Police Department in DC — the lawsuit does not specify when — and, according to the lawsuit, investigators found sperm on the pants she was wearing the night she was with Jones, but couldn’t get a “sufficient DNA profile.” Police got a search warrant for Jones’ DNA and found his DNA on Jane Doe’s breast, and concluded he could not “be excluded” as the source of DNA on her neck, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit does not indicate that criminal charges were filed against Jones, and there is no record of a criminal case against him in District of Columbia Superior Court.
Jane Doe also said she told Sewell about the alleged rape at the time, and that Sewell called Jane Doe’s mother without Jane Doe’s permission to alert her that something had happened; Sewell and Jane Doe’s mother are related, according to the complaint. A spokesperson for Sewell did not immediately return a request for comment.
Jane Doe also said she met with representatives of the CBCF in November 2015, who asked for her communications with Jones; she said they told her Jones was being placed on leave right away. According to Jones’ LinkedIn profile, he left the foundation in December 2015.
Jane Doe noted that almost two years after she reported her allegations against Jones to the CBCF, Jones was invited to appear on a panel at the CBCF’s annual legislative conference in September 2017. The conference website indicates he was on a panel about environmental issues; he was working for the Union of Concerned Scientists at the time.
Banks told BuzzFeed News that the foundation did not invite Jones to the conference — he said third party sponsors are responsible for lining up speakers for many of the panels. Asked if anyone at the foundation knew that Jones had been invited, Banks said he did not know. He said the foundation did review conference panels, but "it may have slipped through or gotten past us." However, he said that even if the foundation did know Jones was invited, the foundation might not have been in a position to stop him from participating.
"It becomes kind of muddy if we try to tell people when they pay money to host their panel that they can't bring somebody on their panel," Banks said.
According to the lawsuit, Jane Doe told the CBCF in October 2016 that she planned to file a lawsuit, but did not at the time.
In late 2017, Jane Doe took a job in Jackson Lee’s congressional office. Soon after she was hired, according to the lawsuit, Jane Doe learned that Jones might be hired in Jackson Lee’s office, and she told Rushing that she had a “prior situation” with Jones and would not be comfortable working together. Rushing allegedly told her that he understood and didn’t end up hiring Jones “because he had a situation with CBCF and they could not have him working in the office as a result.”
In early March 2018, Jane Doe told Rushing that she had learned “more about her case involving Mr. Jones and CBCF” and was planning to go forward with legal action, according to the complaint. Jane Doe said she asked to speak with Jackson Lee, and Rushing agreed, but no meeting took place. On March 29, she said she was told she was being fired because of budget issues.
Jane Doe’s lawsuit describes times she said she spent driving Jackson Lee in her personal car she and alleges she was pressured by Jackson Lee and Rushing to get a new car after her car was damaged in an accident. When she was fired, she said that in addition to being told it was because of budget issues, that Rushing also told her, “It didn’t help that you lied about the car.” It was not immediately clear from court filings what that was a reference to.
Jane Doe alleges that the budget-related explanation was a pretext and that Jackson Lee retaliated against her for planning to take action against the CBCF related to the alleged rape.
The lawsuit includes claims against both Jackson Lee individually as well as against the CBCF.
This story was updated on Jan. 17, 2019, with comment from Marc Banks, a spokesperson for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.