Since taking office in a special election last May, Democratic state representative Jolanda Jones, of Houston, has established a reputation as one of the Texas Legislature’s most liberal members. As the first openly gay Black state lawmaker in the Lege, Jones has helped lead Democratic opposition to the Republican slate of anti-trans and anti-drag bills. She has been one of the most vocal proponents of criminal justice reform and an advocate for taking a public health approach to drug addiction. She has fought Republican efforts to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in state institutions and the teaching of critical race theory. (CRT is a college-level framework for examining systemic racism that is not actually taught in Texas public schools.) “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you don’t fight,” the 57-year-old Jones said at a February press conference, appearing to acknowledge that Democrats would lose most of their legislative battles this session. “This country was founded on people who fought an oppressive government in England.”
Inside Jones’s legislative office, though, a different kind of fight was brewing. On March 30, all three full-time members of her staff resigned. They gave their reasons in a four-page resignation letter that they sent to Jones; Speaker of the House Dade Phelan; and the House Administration Committee, which functions as the chamber’s human resources department. The letter, which was published the following day by the Quorum Report, accuses Jones of creating “an abusive and hostile work environment” in which “toxic and unethical behavior is tolerated and condoned.” The former staffers’ most serious allegation is that Jones covered up an “inappropriate relationship” between her 31-year-old son, Jiovanni Teheran-Jones, and her 26-year-old office intern, Jessica Fuqua. The staffers wrote that the relationship “displays disrespect for the workplace” and involves a “power imbalance” between Jones’s son and her intern. The House General Investigating Committee is currently looking into the allegations; in a statement released on April 5, Jones denied any wrongdoing and pledged to cooperate with the investigation.
I recently spoke to Jones’s three former employees: chief of staff Kory Haywood, legislative director Catherine “Cat” Mouer, and district director Yesenia Wences. In their first media interviews since resigning, they explained why they wrote the letter and provided new details about Jones’s office culture. They told me that the letter was intended to remain private and that they believe someone leaked it to the press in an effort to embarrass Jones. Haywood said, “I just think someone, either [the House Administrative Committee] or someone,” leaked it. The staffers’ accounts raise fresh questions about Jones’s professionalism and ethical standards—issues that have dogged the Houston criminal defense attorney over a fifteen-year political career that has included stints as a Houston City Council member and a Houston Independent School District trustee.
Jones declined an interview request for this story, saying she is “prohibited from discussing a personnel matter under investigation,” and did not respond to a written list of the employees’ allegations. Her media spokesperson, Kelly Cripe, told Texas Monthly that Jones “is in Austin to work on behalf of the constituents that elected her to further the important causes they care about. She’s not in Austin to referee office gossip or to participate in a sideshow soap opera created by three disgruntled former employees that apparently could not get along with office interns.”
A leitmotif of the three employees’ accounts is an absence of boundaries: between Jones’s work life and personal life, between her family and her employees, and between her legislative work and her legal practice. Haywood was hired as Jones’s chief of staff last summer, shortly after Jones won the special election to fill the seat of Garnet Coleman, who retired in the middle of his term after serving more than thirty years in the Texas House. Working out of both Jones’s Austin and Houston offices, Haywood said that Jones expected him to be available 24-7 and would call him as late as 2 a.m. for conversations that might range from politics to her legal cases to her personal life. “Nothing was off-limits,” he said. “What she did that day, who she talked to.” Haywood added that “she had this rule where she literally couldn’t go anywhere without someone,” which meant he or a fellow staffer often had to accompany her on personal errands, such as shopping trips. “It seemed like I was more of a personal assistant than a legislative staffer sometimes.”
Haywood and legislative director Cat Mouer became especially disturbed by the frequent presence in the office of Jones’s son, Teheran-Jones, who works for the Houston lobbying firm Elite Change. Elite Change was founded by political consultant Dallas Jones (no relation), who ran Jones’s 2022 political campaign. According to the resignation letter, Teheran-Jones regularly participated in staff meetings despite not being on the staff, and served as an informal political adviser to his mother.
The staffers’ resignation letter says, “You have had your staff involve themselves in your son’s legal issues and criminal charges.” In February, Teheran-Jones and two other people were arrested at Guadalupe River State Park after police allegedly discovered a chocolate bar containing 400 milligrams of psilocybin mushrooms at their campsite; he was charged with a second-degree felony. In our interviews, the staffers declined to discuss the details of their involvement with the case. Cripe, Jones’s spokesperson, told Texas Monthly that “Representative Jones is a public figure. Her family and her legislative staff are private citizens. They have been slandered, libeled, and defamed with false accusations that have damaged them personally and professionally.”
At some point, the former staffers say, Teheran-Jones began a romantic relationship with Jessica Fuqua, an intern Jones had hired through the Texas Legislative Internship Program, which places students of color in legislative offices. Such a relationship does not violate Texas House or TLIP rules, but the staffers say they were concerned by Teheran-Jones’s behavior. Their resignation letter accuses Jones of “holding a legal case hostage over your son’s girlfriend because you allow him to gaslight and emotionally and physically abuse all the women in his life—work and personal—while dragging your entire office through it.” (Teheran-Jones and Fuqua did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
District director Yesenia Wences worked out of Jones’s Houston office, providing constituent services and attending community meetings. Once the legislative session started in January, she was insulated from much of the Austin office’s day-to-day drama. But she too found herself caught up in the alleged relationship between Teheran-Jones and Fuqua. At first, according to Wences, the two had attempted to keep their relationship a secret. When Jones found out, Teheran-Jones was upset and wanted to know how she knew about the relationship. Wences says Jones instructed her to lie, saying Wences had been the one to inform the representative. “[Jones] made me take the blame,” Wences told me. (It remains unclear how Jones learned of the alleged relationship.) According to the resignation letter, Teheran-Jones responded by threatening to accuse Wences of conducting illegal business in the office—a charge that Wences vehemently denies.
As the office dynamic grew increasingly heated, Wences began looking for a way out. “I wasn’t sure if I was physically in danger, but I felt my career could be in danger,” she told me. “If I knew this relationship was going on, and I didn’t say anything, and if there was anything remotely illegal happening, then I could take the blame for that.”
By March, the three staffers had reached the end of their rope and began to draft the resignation letter. They say they did not know whether or not the letter would leak. “We wrote the letter because we wanted to make sure that staff in [Jones’s] office moving forward would be successful, and that she would change some of her behavior,” Haywood said. “It was never meant to be a public statement.”
At first, Jones responded with an anodyne statement noting, “Some on my staff have decided this job is not for them. I wish them good luck and success in their next endeavors.” The following week, though, she released a fiery screed accusing the staff members of contributing to the “revictimization and retraumatization” of Fuqua, whom Jones says gave her permission to share that she is a survivor of sexual assault. “I cannot sit quietly and allow members of my staff to be wrongfully publicly identified, denigrated and demeaned at the hands of former employees,” she writes. She also says in the letter that she has spoken to Fuqua, who “categorically denies any wrong doing or participation in any inappropriate relationship with my son.” Likewise, she writes, Teheran-Jones “denies participation in any type of inappropriate behavior or relationship.” (Mouer told me that any trauma experienced by Fuqua is “the responsibility of whoever leaked the letter.”) Jones seems particularly incensed by the staffers’ allegations about Teheran-Jones. In her April 5 letter, Jones argues that “[t]hese allegations were not made by the victim in question but rather by individuals who made assumptions with no verifiable evidence.”
Both Jones and her three former staffers say they are cooperating with the House General Investigating Committee. The staffers are currently looking for new positions. “I loved my job, and it really hurt me to have to let it go,” Wences told me. For his part, Haywood worries that Jones will try to prevent him from getting another legislative position. “She wants to blackball us,” he said. “I’m really just trying to be safe about this, not just for my own safety but also for my career and my team’s career moving forward.”
One person who won’t have to look for a new job is Fuqua, the intern who was allegedly in a relationship with Teheran-Jones. Earlier this month, Jones hired Fuqua as a full-time staff member. In a recent Instagram post that tagged Haywood and Mouer, Fuqua wrote that “three miserable people tried with all their weak might to tear me down. I was revictimized in the Houston media. But as Michelle Obama said: When they go low, we go high! Allow me to reintroduce myself. The once Intern is now the Policy Director!”