There has been mounting backlash to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) ever since an unnamed woman claimed in a lawsuit that she was sexually assaulted by an employee of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and that Jackson Lee dismissed her when she said she planned to take legal action against the group. Now Jackson Lee, who has denied through her office that she retaliated against the woman, is stepping down as chair of a House subcommittee and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Colleagues rallied behind Jackson Lee on Wednesday, alternately praising her decision to step down from her leadership roles and declining to discuss the situation with reporters.
The congresswoman, who has served 13 terms, declined to comment personally when approached by The Washington Post on Wednesday, saying her office would put out a statement.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) confirmed that Jackson Lee would cede the panel’s crime subcommittee gavel “voluntarily and temporarily” and said it did not reflect any culpability on her part.
“I am also pleased that Rep. Karen Bass has agreed to serve as interim Chair of the Crime Subcommittee until the matter is resolved and Representative Jackson Lee can resume the role of Chair,” Nadler said in a statement.
Former Congressional Black Caucus chair Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) said Jackson Lee told colleagues separately about her plan to step down as chair of the CBC Foundation, which she had led since 2017. The decisions were first reported by BuzzFeed and the New York Times.
“The only thing I know is that she made that decision.”
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, founded in 1976, is a policy organization that works to “advance the global black community by developing leaders, informing policy, and educating the public,” according to its mission statement. The group is known for its internship program, which awards semester-long placements in congressional offices to college students and recent graduates.
The Jane Doe lawsuit alleges that the woman was sexually assaulted by the foundation’s internship coordinator while she participated in the program in fall 2015. Later hired to work in Jackson Lee’s congressional office, the woman claims she was dismissed after four months because she told a supervisor that she planned to sue the foundation over the alleged assault. Jackson Lee had become chair of the foundation’s board in 2017 and remained in the position at the time of the woman’s dismissal, stated the lawsuit, which seeks damages “exceeding $75,000.”
Through her attorney, the woman declined to comment Wednesday on Jackson Lee’s decision to step down as board chair.
Pressure started building on the congresswoman this week as women’s groups backed the unidentified woman and withdrew support for Jackson Lee as the leader of a push to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
“While Rep. Jackson Lee has been critical in shepherding VAWA reauthorization during the 115th Congress, The Hotline can no longer continue to support her leading VAWA reauthorization at this time,” read a statement Wednesday from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Nadler said Jackson Lee would still play a role in efforts to reauthorize the 1994 law, stating, “Collectively, I as Chairman, Representative Jackson Lee, and Representative Bass will continue working together to strengthen VAWA and to reform our criminal justice system.”
Jackson Lee had faced no public calls to cede her leadership roles.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said he trusted that she would make the right decision but declined to comment further.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to Representative Lee or be briefed on the lawsuit, but I’m confident that she will do the right thing,” said Jeffries, a member of the CBC.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a CBC member, praised Jackson Lee’s decision as courageous and said she could resume her leadership of the foundation board and the House Judiciary subcommittee “once everything is resolved.”
“Oftentimes, allegations that are made end up not being truthful in fact,” he said. “So I look forward to her having her day in court. We should give her a presumption of innocence. ... They are simply allegations.”
Other members of the group circled the wagons Wednesday, declining to confirm or discuss the news.
“I don’t have any comment at this time. We haven’t had our board meeting yet,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), a member of the CBC Foundation’s board.
“I’m not in a position to know much,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), another board member, who blamed his busy schedule over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. “I was just telling one of my colleagues that I’m kind of out of things.”
Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), a third board member, said that before news of Jackson Lee’s decision broke, he had hoped that the process would be “open and transparent,” but he said he would need to study the issue further before commenting.
“Let me do my deep dive, and then I’d be more than happy to have that discussion,” Evans said.
A day earlier, The Post sought comment from two dozen lawmakers who are former CBC chairs or have sat on the foundation’s board. Three replied, all declining to comment.