The chief of staff for a longtime Texas congresswoman has been placed on leave following Washington Blade inquiries about an email he wrote disparaging a gay staff member.
Eddie Reeves, spokesperson for the campaign of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), said Murat Gokcigdem, the lawmaker’s chief of staff, has been placed on indefinite leave effective Monday and that Johnson would pursue an independent investigation of his actions.
The announcement follows Blade inquiries about an email from 2010 apparently written by Gokcigdem, about a gay staffer in the office, the late Christopher Crowe, who sought a position in the Treasury Department as special assistant to the undersecretary of budget and tax.
The email, titled “Chris Crowe update,” is dated June 2, 2010 and was apparently intended for Johnson but accidentally sent to Crowe. It was obtained earlier this month by the Washington Blade.
Gokcigdem wrote that he learned Crowe was among four finalists for the Treasury Department position and was seeking a letter of recommendation from the congresswoman.
The chief of staff writes that Crowe had friends within the administration and suggests that other LGBT people helped him in the hiring process because he wasn’t sufficiently qualified to have advanced that far otherwise.
“It is my personal belief that he has contacts there,” Gokcigdem writes. “And they, as a group watching and supporting each other if you know what I mean.”
The 29-year-old gay staffer became ill with meningitis and died of a staph infection that damaged his heart before he could secure the position.
Reeves said the lawmaker decided on Monday to put Gokcigdem on indefinite leave after she learned about the email as she was traveling back to Texas.
“Based on what she’s heard from different people on her staff, she decided the best course of action to do is put Murat on leave pending an investigation,” Reeves said.
Reeves said Johnson has already informed Gokcigdem that he has been placed on leave, but the path for an independent investigation hasn’t yet been determined.
Additionally, Reeves emphasized Johnson’s support for the LGBT community in the course of her work on the Hill.
“The congresswoman has been among the strongest supporters on the Hill of human rights and civil rights, including gay rights,” Reeves said. “That’s why she has a 100 percent rating on LGBT issues. She’s always had the support of Stonewall Democrats; she always had the support of the Human Rights Campaign, and quite frankly, not every member of the Congressional Black Caucus can say that.”
In the email, Gokcigdem wrote that the White House cleared Crowe for the position and expressed disbelief that Crowe had advanced so far in the hiring process.
“I can not believe the White House could pass a junior [legislative aide] to be a congressional liaison for budget and tax issues,” Gokcigdem wrote. “I don’t think he has the expertise or the vast knowledge to be like Rod Hall.”
Later in the email, Gokcigdem said he would defer to Johnson on whether he should write a letter of recommendation, saying Crowe was a satisfactory employee but added, “I had issues with him both professionally and personally.” The issues to which Gokcigdem refers are not named.
According to Legistorm, which monitors the expenses of House members, Gokcigdem took home $168,411 in income as Johnson’s chief of staff last year.
Crowe died in March 2011. Upon his death, Johnson issued a statement saying Crowe “was respected by his colleagues for his professionalism and beloved by many for his generous spirit and good humor.” Johnson was among the speakers during a memorial service for Crowe attended by Capitol Hill staffers.
Natalie Wyeth, a Treasury Department spokesperson, declined to comment on the Treasury Department position because the department does not comment on personnel matters.
Johnson, who represents Texas’ 30th congressional district, is facing two challengers in a competitive primary set for May 29: Barbara Mallory Caraway, a Texas state representative, and Taj Clayton, an attorney. Early voting for the primary began Monday.
According to the latest scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign, the 10-term Democrat has a perfect record in favor of LGBT legislation. In the 111th Congress, she voted for hate crimes legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Under the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Johnson voted against amendments reaffirming the Defense of Marriage Act that went to the House floor.
Johnson has also been endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, a local gay Democratic group in her district.
Omar Narvaéz, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, had high praise for Johnson — a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus — and her work on LGBT issues.
“Eddie Bernice Johnson has throughout her tenure been one of the strongest supporters on Capitol Hill of civil and human rights, including gay rights,” Narvaéz said. “That’s why she has consistently scored a 100 percent rating for LGBT issues and has always enjoyed the avid support of groups like Stonewall Democrats and the HRC — something not every member of Congressional Black Caucus can boast.”
In response to Gokcigdem’s email, Narvaéz said he “sees nothing wrong.”
“While she didn’t know about this email, it simply isn’t an issue,” Narvaéz said. “Not only is it true that gay groups, like every other racial, ethnic, geographic or issue group, stick together, it is a great thing that we do.”
In 2010, Johnson was criticized after the Dallas Morning News reported over the course of five years she gave out 23 scholarships to relatives — two grandchildren and two great grandchildren — and staff members’ children, which is against the rules of the scholarship.
The lawmaker repaid $31,000 to the caucus and said she was unaware that what she did was unethical. In a subsequent interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Johnson said Gokcigdem was responsible for reviewing the scholarship applications.
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article misspelled the name of Murat Gockcigdem. The Blade regrets the error.