When British war secretary John Profumo’s political career went up in smoke over a dalliance with a young woman in 1961, he famously reentered civil society by cleaning bathrooms at a charity for London’s poor. There was a time in living memory, in other words, when at least one politician in the English-speaking world was capable of acting like he felt shame. Contrast that with the noble example cut by Texas’s wayward son Blake Farenthold, formerly of the Twenty-seventh Congressional District, who has proved unwilling to clean up even his own mess.
Farenthold, who was first elected in 2010, in a shock upset, had a tenuous connection to a noble political lineage he could have drawn from—his former step-grandmother is Sissy Farenthold, the Texas anti-corruption crusader who won admiration from across the political spectrum for her frank talk and desire to wring money out of politics. But Farenthold 2.0 was all id, as if he were a minor character in a Coen brothers film about the Texas congressional delegation, and his first few terms in office produced mainly gaffes. There was the time when he fantasized about challenging moderate female Republican senators to a duel, “Aaron Burr–style,” and the time when he told MSNBC he would consider supporting Donald Trump even if Trump were to have bragged about raping women. This was a man whose mouth always seemed to get way ahead of whatever sense he might have.
Yet Farenthold, who gained notoriety outside of Texas’s borders when a photograph of him wearing a ducky-festooned onesie while posing with lingerie-clad women at a costume party went viral, has become best known for his apparent inability to control another part of his body.
In 2014 Farenthold’s former communications director Lauren Greene sued him for sexual harassment, alleging that he told colleagues about the wet dreams he’d had about her. There was more. Greene claimed that Farenthold “regularly drank to excess,” bragged at a staff meeting that a lobbyist had propositioned him for a threesome, and was such a loose cannon that when he attended parties around D.C. his staff accompanied him on what they called “redhead patrol,” with the goal of keeping him “out of trouble.” Other former staff members alleged similarly terrible behavior: prior to the wedding of one of his staffers, Farenthold allegedly told the groom-to-be to “have your fiancée blow you before she walks down the aisle—it will be the last time.”
Farenthold denied it all—hilariously, his lawyers explained that the person who suggested the threesome wasn’t a lobbyist— but he eventually paid Greene $84,000 to make the lawsuit go away. Yet that only made things worse when it was revealed in late 2017 that Farenthold had confidentially paid her off using taxpayer money, through a little-known congressional instrument called the Office of Compliance. That was legal but widely regarded as grotesque.
At first, Farenthold promised to repay the money—or, if that weren’t possible, to donate an equivalent amount of money to charity. “I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for this,” he said at the time. It should have been easy enough—as of last year, Farenthold’s financial disclosures reported a net worth of more than $2 million.
But by the time Farenthold finally resigned from Congress in April, he had started reversing course on pretty much everything. His denial of the original accusations turned to rationalization. He admitted, in a letter to Governor “Gregg [sic] Abbott,” that he had “run a more informal office than some people may have expected from a career politician,” for reasons of which he was proud. “Congress needs real people, who speak in everyday language” and not “political creatures trying to protect their plot within the swamp.”
And the money never made its way back to the public coffers—Farenthold claimed his lawyers had advised him not to pay up—and it became clear it most likely never would. “The only avenue is public pressure,” said Craig Holman, of the ethics watchdog Public Citizen. But public pressure only works on someone who can feel shame, and shame is in short supply these days.
Jobs for disgraced former pols, however, are not. Last spring, a few weeks after his triumphal departure from Washington, Farenthold revealed that he had been hired as the legislative liaison for the Calhoun Port Authority, which oversees shipping operations in Port Lavaca and Point Comfort, for a tidy $160,000 a year. “Blake has always been a strong supporter of the Calhoun Port Authority,” the organization said in a statement. “The Board looks forward to the services Blake can provide in assisting the Port with matters in Washington, D.C.” Given that Farenthold had been run out of the nation’s capital on a rail, it was not immediately clear what services he could provide. And then there were the inconvenient facts that the port had never before employed a lobbyist, didn’t seem to have advertised the position, and had appeared to violate the state’s open-meetings law by hiring him in a secretive manner.
The local Victoria Advocate started digging. During his time in Congress, the paper revealed, Farenthold had “tried to steer a federal contract to a [dredging company owned by Randy Boyd,] the chairman of the Calhoun Port Authority.” (That the head of a dredging company should chair a port authority board is itself ethically dubious.) Specifically, Farenthold had arranged a meeting between Boyd and the Army Corps of Engineers. The company didn’t win that contract but has succeeded in getting more and more Corps contracts over the past decade.
While Farenthold was arranging the meeting, Boyd donated $5,000 to his campaign, which Boyd later described as “coincidental.” In May the Advocate sued the Port Authority over the breach of the open-meetings law and Boyd’s board authorized more taxpayer money, up to $80,000 a year, to defend the circumstances of Farenthold’s hiring. While the case progresses, Farenthold continues to pull down $13,333 a month without having to document his work.
Though we are a nation of laws, the regard of our peers keeps us in line as much as anything. But what happens if we decide it doesn’t matter? In his ducky-onesied particulars, Farenthold is a space oddity, one of a kind. But in his refusal to suffer consequences for his misbehavior, he’s an emblem of the age. In 2018 Blake Farenthold told the haters to shove it—and for that anti-triumph, he’s our first runner-up Bum Steer of the Year.