AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Senator Charles Schwertner, R – Georgetown, blamed a third party for sending lewd text messages to a graduate school student at the University of Texas. According to a University investigation summary, Schwertner allowed this third person access to his phone number through a mobile app called Hushed.
According the app’s website, Hushed is marketed as a “burner phone app.”
The website showcases a testimonial describing Hushed as “ideal for communicating with anyone you don’t necessarily want to have your number, like the person on Craigslist… or a blind date you’re meeting for the first time.”
KXAN tried multiple times to ask Sen. Schwertner why he was using the Hushed app and whether he uses it for state business. He has not responded to our request for comment.
Government watchdogs say this case exposes the threat private message apps pose to government transparency.
Bill Aleshire practices transparency and government accountability law in Austin and believes Sen. Schwertner’s use of Hushed should raise concerns.
“A lot of people focus on technology being a threat to privacy,” said Aleshire, “Technology is a threat to open government too. Particularly to public information.”
He published an article in the Texas Tech Administrative Law Journal describing how the Hillary Clinton email scandal put the spotlight on the state’s public information laws inability to cover private devices.
Then Secretary of State Clinton communicated with a private email server. Government lawyers, journalists, and citizens couldn’t get access to her communication. Aleshire draws a direct comparison to Schwertner’s incident and how lawyers, journalists, and citizens aren’t able to see what the senator communicates unless he allows it.
University investigators tried. Schwertner and his lawyers didn’t cooperate, according to a summary of the investigation.
“Not only do you have personal device or email account but then you can even mask that. Where it’s not present when you go look,” said Aleshire,”What concerns me as a government transparency advocate about this incident is the exposure of a public official is using this app.”
Aleshire is calling on Texas lawmakers to update their open government laws to the 21st century.
Investigators with the University of Texas at Austin began looking into Schwertner after a graduate student claimed he sent lewd messages and a picture. Schwertner denied these allegations.
According investigators, he told them the message was sent by another person he was communicating with by Hushed to “privately communicate between themselves.”
KXAN reached out to every Central Texas lawmaker to find out if they currently use or will use Hushed — or another burner app — during the legislative session.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Kirk Watson, D- Austin wrote, “Sen. Watson didn’t know the Hushed app existed until this all came out on Tuesday, and he certainly won’t be using anything like it.”
“I won’t be using any burner apps. I think they undermine transparency and accountability. If something needs to be hidden from your constituents, it probably shouldn’t be sent,” said Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock. “The people of House District 52 gave me their trust and I’ll work every day to be worthy of it.”
“I will not be using ‘burner apps’ and I wouldn’t condone others using them. I believe in transparency and open government,” Rep.-elect Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, said.
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, were traveling for the holidays and unavailable to comment immediately.
Representatives Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, John Cyrier, R- Lockhart, Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, Rep.-elect Erin Zweiner, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D- Austin, Rep.-elect John Bucy III, and Sen. Donna Campbell, R- New Braunfels, have not yet responded to a KXAN request for comment.
Tuesday, the staff at the University closed their investigation and could not determine if Sen. Schwertner sent the messages. They wrote in an executive summary of the investigation they could not find enough evidence to tie Schwertner to the texts.
“I do not condone sexual misconduct of any kind. The University of Texas has closed their investigation because I did not send the offensive text messages in question. I appreciate the steadfast support of my family, friends and the voters who believed in and reelected me just weeks ago,” wrote Sen. Schwertner Tuesday when UT closed its investigation.