Sheila Jackson Lee expresses regret after audio leaks of her berating, demeaning staffers

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, speaks during an EPA meeting on April 20, 2023 in Houston. (Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune)

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U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, expressed regret Monday and said she is “not perfect” after a recording came out that appeared to show her berating staff with profanity.

Jackson Lee is running for Houston mayor, and the recording was sent from an anonymous email account to multiple news organizations Friday, three days before the start of early voting. She broke her silence on it in a statement Monday night.

“I want to convey to the people of Houston that I strongly believe that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that includes my own staff,” Jackson Lee said. “I know that I am not perfect. I recognize that in my zeal to do everything possible to deliver for my constituents I have in the past fallen short of my own standards and there is no excuse for that.”

On the recording, which is about a minute and a half, a voice that sounds like Jackson Lee’s can be heard erupting at a staffer who does not have a document she was looking for. She tells the staffer she wants him to have a “fuckin’ brain” and says “nobody knows a Goddamn thing in my office – nothing.” She refers to another staffer, who is apparently not in the room, as a “fat-ass stupid idiot” and adds both staffers are “fuck-ups.”

“It’s the worst shit that I could have ever had put together,” Jackson Lee says. “Two Goddamn big-ass children, fuckin’ idiots who serve no Goddamn purpose.”

Former staff members did not respond to requests for comment about the recording.

Jackson Lee’s campaign has refused to verify the recording and only referred to it as an “alleged recording” in the title of her statement.

“To anyone who has listened to this recording with concern, I am regretful and hope you will judge me not by something trotted out by a political opponent, that worked to exploit this, and backed by extreme Republican supporters on the very day that polls open, but from what I’ve delivered to Houstonians over my years of public service,” Jackson Lee said in her statement.

A spokesperson for the Whitmire campaign, Sue Davis, said the campaign “had nothing to do with this recording.”

“This weak attempt to try to pin this on us is a desperate effort to try to change the narrative away from the contents of the recording,” Davis wrote in an email.

Jackson Lee’s campaign provided a screenshot appearing to show a consultant who works on the Whitmire campaign, Jaime Mercado, as the creator of the audio file. Davis said that was a separate version of the audio file that Mercado created to share internally inside the Whitmire campaign after members were blind-copied on the original email.

Jackson Lee’s reputation for volatility in her office is well established. She ranks sixth for staff turnover from 2001-2022 in a “Worst Bosses” ranking compiled by LegiStorm, a congressional data website.

The Harris County Young Democrats, which previously issued a dual endorsement for Jackson Lee and Whitmire, announced Monday they were withdrawing their support for Jackson Lee, saying they have a “zero-tolerance policy for body-shaming and staff abuse.”

In an interview Monday about the race, Whitmire brought up the audio but declined to criticize Jackson Lee over it.

“Our records speak for ourselves,” he said. “I haven’t said one negative word. Not one.”

Correction, : A previous version of this story misstated the range of years included in a ranking of the most staff turnover for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. The years included in the ranking were 2001-22.