The district director for Texas’ newest congresswoman, Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, recently resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment.
The far-right website Current Revolt first reported a series of long-running allegations against Aron Peña in a story published last week. The website, which is associated with the far right in Texas politics, said it was told Peña is “accused of multiple instances of harassment of teenage staffers,” including “unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments, and forcing himself on staffers.”
The Texas Tribune found that Peña’s previous employer, the state Republican Party, had investigated allegations of harassment against him. And when he was then Flores’ district director, he was accused of touching and kissing an intern without her consent in July. He denies any wrongdoing.
“The accusations are serious and not a reflection of our values,” Flores spokesperson Daniel Bucheli said in a statement. “We addressed the allegations as soon as we were made aware, and Mr. Peña resigned.”
Bucheli’s statement referred to the allegations in the Current Revolt piece. Flores’ office declined any additional comment and would not discuss the specific allegations related to the intern. The office also would not answer questions about when Peña resigned and whether it was before or after the Current Revolt article was published.
“I emphatically deny the allegations,” Peña said in a statement to the Tribune, calling them politically motivated.
“After losing several campaigns in the primary a handful of Republicans in the losing camp motivated by revenge have engaged in a long-standing effort to discredit the good work of the Hidalgo County Republican Party,” he said. “Attacks have been made against anyone who disagrees with their efforts.”
He said he left the Flores campaign due to “serious health issues (blood clots in the legs and lungs)” and so he would not be a “distraction in the closing days of an election.”
The allegation against Peña was that he assaulted an intern while driving her and a second intern home at the end of a workday, according to two people familiar with the situation. Peña was said to have dropped off the second intern first, even though it was out of the way, the people said. Once he was alone with the first intern in the car, he was reported to take longer routes to her house and began touching her and kissing her, despite her telling him to stop, according to the people.
Peña did not deny the incident took place but told the Tribune that the intern started it and that it was consensual.
Peña is a member of a prominent family in Republican politics in South Texas. His sister, Adrienne Peña-Garza, is the chairperson of the Hidalgo County GOP. His father is Aaron Peña, a former state representative who is running for a state appeals court seat.
Flores is close to the family. Peña-Garza helped give Flores her start in politics by hiring her as Hispanic outreach chair for the party.
Flores is in a hotly contested race for reelection after flipping the 34th Congressional District in a June special election, a boon to the GOP’s post-2020 offensive in South Texas. But she faces a tougher race in November, when the district has been redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats and her opponent is U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen.
The campaign arm of House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent out a news release Friday extensively highlighting the Current Revolt story, including 11 bullet points with excerpts.
Gonzalez said he was “deeply disturbed” that Flores hired Peña.
“Rep. Flores turned a blind eye to his behavior because he came from a connected family — and as a result, a young female staffer was assaulted in her workplace,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “It’s inexcusable and tells you everything you need to know about Mayra Flores’ judgment and character.”
Peña previously worked for the Texas GOP, serving as strategic initiatives director from August 2021 until June 23, 2022, according to a party spokesperson. The party’s chair, Matt Rinaldi, acknowledged in a statement that the party looked into sexual harassment allegations against Peña but declined to provide additional detail, citing a confidential process.
“The Republican Party of Texas operates a zero tolerance policy for any form of sexual harassment in the workplace, treats all incidents seriously, and promptly investigates all allegations of sexual harassment,” Rinaldi said. “Any person found to have sexually harassed another will face disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal from employment. All complaints are taken seriously and treated with respect and in confidence. That process was followed in this instance.”
One woman who had been involved in local Republican politics, who also asked to be unnamed because of concerns about retribution, said she became so alarmed with Peña’s behavior that she filed a police report in February, hoping to end what she described as years of harassment and stalking. She said she went in person to the McAllen Police Department and shared her experience with officers at length, but when she later asked for a copy of the report, she was given a summary that omitted many details.
“Victim stated male suspect has been harassing her for years now. Victim is willing to file charges,” said the Feb. 18 summary, a copy of which The Texas Tribune obtained.
The Tribune has filed a public records request for the full report.
Peña was never charged with a crime. He said the accuser was a Democratic plant who hates his family.
Graham, the Cameron County GOP leader, said she did not think Flores was aware of the problems with Peña when she hired him.
“I can say with all honesty I don’t believe she knew about any of this,” Graham said. “I know her well enough to believe that if she had heard about that, she would absolutely not tolerate it.”
This article was written by PATRICK SVITEK of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared at: https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/16/mayra-flores-aron-pena/