Federal lawsuit: Texas senator intervened in DPS investigation

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The legal battle over an alleged “culture of corruption” at the Texas Department of Public Safety — DPS — continues in federal court with an amended lawsuit that now includes claims from a current corporal with the Texas Highway Patrol, a division of the law enforcement agency. 

The new 52-page lawsuit alleges that Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, intervened with DPS Director Steven McCraw to terminate the investigation of a male captain and a female trooper subordinate who were allegedly having an inappropriate relationship. Female corporal Katherine Gibson reportedly filed the complaint that sparked the internal investigation after she expressed concerns about how the two were behaving in uniform on Capitol grounds. 

Because they are not listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, we are not identifying them by name.

Corporal Gibson started as a civilian employee at DPS more than 20 years ago, but soon after made the switch to the law enforcement side of the agency. She says she started as a Capitol Police Officer in 2000 and was made a DPS trooper in 2001. 

Despite what she believes is a career of successes at the agency, Gibson said she’s been retaliated against the past two years — she believes because of making the report.

“I just wanted it fixed. I wanted the troopers to come to work and feel okay and it just be fixed. This shouldn’t be on their mind everyday. We’ve got a big building that we have to protect and millions of people that visit every single year,” said Gibson. “I knew eventually it was going to come back because they don’t like people who talk. They just don’t.”

What once felt like a family to her now feels estranged, Gibson says.

“Everyone is backed into the corner because they really don’t know who is for you or who is against you. Especially as a female, it’s tough. But we work really hard to stand side-by-side with our brothers in uniform.” 

Gibson says her experience at DPS took a negative turn in spring 2016 when she filed the complaint and shortly thereafter, the captain involved was reportedly set to retire just a few months later, but didn’t. 

“What’s presumed to be the fixing process, where people move, retire, that kind of stuff, immediately came to an abrupt halt,” Gibson said. She believes this halt was at the direction of Whitmire.

Gibson says she has reason to believe the female trooper and Whitmire had a relationship at some point, too. “[The female trooper] would talk about her working night shift, getting off at 6 a.m., and then going over to the west gate building to visit Senator Whitmire.” 

Whitmire responded to KXAN’s request for comment with this statement: 

“I won’t dignify it with a response except that the accusations against me are entirely false.”

The amended lawsuit was filed by Ty Clevenger on behalf of Trooper Billy Spears, who was punished in 2015 for being photographed with Snoop Dogg at SXSW. Clevenger says the incident led to continued retaliation against his client at the agency. Clevenger has added the captain and trooper to the legal complaint, he says, to “demonstrate a pattern of corruption, cronyism, and cover-ups at DPS.”

Clevenger told KXAN there is a serious potential conflict of interest because Whitmire serves as chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice

“Sen. Whitmire fully controls the agenda. He decides who testifies, he decides what subjects are going to be discussed in that committee, and until there is a little more clarity about what his connection is [to the female trooper], I don’t believe he needs to be hearing anything about DPS.”

In a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office, Clevenger has requested an investigation into Whitmire. Clevenger wrote, “Before asking the Committee on Criminal Justice to investigate DPS, my client requests an investigation into whether the chairman has a conflict of interest.” 

Representatives with Patrick’s office tell KXAN: “To be clear, the Texas Senate does not launch investigations based on lawsuits or media reports of unproved allegations. That said, Lt. Gov. Patrick has referred the lawyer’s letter to Sen. Bryan Hughes, Chair of the Senate Administration Committee, for review.” 

When we reached out to Sen. Hughes, the Senate Committee on Administration sent KXAN its response to Clevenger’s letter, notifying him that an investigation that he has requested isn’t within its jurisdiction. The committee referred Clevenger instead to the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS. 

Twenty defendants are named in the lawsuit — many of whom are high-ranking officials at the state agency. Among them is DPS Director Steven McCraw, DPS Inspector General Rhonda Fleming and members of the Texas Public Safety Commission. 

The initial lawsuit was filed just weeks after a KXAN investigation revealed nearly 500 official allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the Texas Department of Public Safety since 2013.

When KXAN reached out to DPS for comment regarding the specific federal litigation, we were sent this statement, in part: 

“The Feb. 11, 2019, pleading is the plaintiff’s attempt to revive the dismissed lawsuit by making additional unsupported, inflammatory and inaccurate claims. We will continue to address any claims brought against the department or its employees through the proper legal proceedings.”

Katherine Cesinger
Communications Director
Media and Communications Office, Texas Department of Public Safety

“Filing an OIG complaint or an EEO complaint — it’s what we have that’s supposed to fix these things,” added Gibson. “Where is the true justice for those of us who really want to stand up for what is right? I want to be known as a person that stood up for what’s right.”

Data by the numbers 

In the past five years, there have been hundreds of allegations of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation at DPS. 

The most frequent of the four categories was discrimination with 220 allegations between 2013-17. Also during that time, there were 129 allegations of harassment and 69 allegations of retaliation. Allegations of sexual harassment were the least frequent of all, with only 26 allegations since 2013.

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