U.S. Reprehensible

Eddie Bernice Johnson has burned through more than 50 staffers during her four years in Congress. She says she's just demanding. They say she's a tyrant.

It was happy news, and Elizabeth Faeth meant to share it. On March 9, 1995, the legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote her boss a note, informing the congresswoman that Faeth and her husband were expecting their first child.

Faeth had been on Johnson's congressional staff for about nine months, and thought things were going pretty well. The congresswoman recently had even given Faeth a $5,000-a-year raise.

But the day after sending Johnson her happy note, Faeth was handed her first written performance review. The evaluation, delivered by one of Johnson's assistants, found Faeth wanting in every single one of her job skills. It concluded with the news that Faeth was being fired, and had two weeks left on the payroll.

According to several former employees, pregnancy and motherhood do not fit into Johnson's vision of an efficient congressional office. Women become lazy after they get pregnant, current and former employees say Johnson has told them, a shocking sentiment coming from a 61-year-old grandmother and former nurse who supported the much ballyhooed Family Medical Leave Act and professes in her campaign literature to be a "staunch supporter of women's issues."

But by daring to conceive while in Johnson's employ, Faeth became just one in a series of pregnant staffers who say they were mistreated or unfairly dismissed by the two-term Democrat from Dallas.

Johnson's disdain, however, is not limited to employees who dare to get pregnant while on her payroll. The congresswoman also will not tolerate staffers who don't eagerly drive her to and from work, do her laundry, move her furniture, pick up her dry cleaning, or accept her late-night phone calls when she cannot sleep.

Johnson expects her employees to be always at her beck and call, so they "volunteer" for turns in a chauffeur rotation. By edict, Johnson allows none of her staffers to leave work until she is done for the day and ready to be driven home. Her entire congressional staff--down to the mail router--is expected to stay on the job, even if there is nothing to be done, until Johnson releases them for the evening.

All of which helps explain why, during four years as a congresswoman, Johnson has racked up one of the highest turnover rates on Capitol Hill, firing or running off more than 50 staffers from her Washington and Dallas offices.

Thus far, Johnson's staff--which is limited by law to 18--has turned over the equivalent of almost three times in just two terms. Though Johnson's defenders point out that the Hill is demanding turf, its rigors do not explain why Johnson has run through staffers at a pace twice that of other Texas members of her 1992 freshman legislative class.

During 25 years in the public arena--as a Texas state representative, state senator, and U.S. congresswoman--Johnson has always painted herself as a compassionate champion of the underdog. But behind closed office doors, Johnson exhibits a maliciousness that stands in sharp relief to her public image.

In interviews with former and present employees--more than 20 in all--a portrait emerges of a meanspirited woman who chews up and spits out employees with abandon.

Current and former employees describe her as paranoid, saying Johnson frequently accuses her employees of being spies or of stealing from her. They say Johnson is also imperious, requiring an escort or entourage to accompany her wherever she goes.

Johnson's tyranny and self-aggrandizement is not the by-product of achieving notable political stature. She is a second-term representative in the minority party, and remains a bit player in national politics, a bench warmer who has introduced only three pieces of legislation and holds no substantial committee positions.

Johnson's most notable political achievement to date, in fact, is the absurd lengths she went to during Texas' redistricting to guarantee herself a safe election. The state's congressional map has now been thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, plunging 13 congressional races into chaos.

Many of Johnson's current and former staffers interviewed by the Dallas Observer are so fearful of what they see as Johnson's vindictive nature that they would only speak if their names were not used. Others who still work on Capitol Hill--or hope to--claim no elected official would ever hire them again if it were known that they spoke negatively about the congresswoman.

Getting rid of pregnant staffers, the current and former employees say, is only one example of the congresswoman's menacing management style. There are so many other examples, they say, that it is hard to pick the most outrageous of Johnson's abuses.

Perhaps it was the time Johnson demanded that an employee pay for $2,000 in repairs to the undercarriage of the congresswoman's gold Mercedes. The staffer, who denied causing the damage, had chauffeured Johnson around Washington in the car, and used it to perform Johnson's personal errands, like fetching the congresswoman's dry cleaning. (Johnson now makes employees drive their own cars while chauffeuring her around, minimizing the risk to her Mercedes.)

Or maybe the worst was earlier this year, when Johnson discovered that some candy was missing from a crystal jar on her office desk. Johnson had Capitol Hill police install a 24-hour surveillance camera in her private office.

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