Colorado lawmakers could change how they handle harassment complaints. Here’s why. And what you should know about harassment at the Capitol.
UPDATE: On Friday, legislative leaders agreed to change the way the legislature handles allegations of harassment at the Capitol by hiring a human resources professional and bringing on a consultant to review the General Assembly’s harassment policy, according to a statement from House Democrats. The legislature will also implement “mandatory yearly trainings on workplace harassment prevention for legislators, full-time staff and aides and interns.”
A month after a wave of sexual harassment allegations crashed over the Capitol, top lawmakers on Friday will hold a high-stakes meeting about how they might better handle such complaints.
The public meeting among leadership, lawyers and staff at the statehouse comes as members of the legislature gear up for the start of the next legislative session on Jan. 10. Over the next six months, as lawmakers clash and compromise over proposed laws, they will do so against the backdrop of complaints about a culture of sexual harassment under the gold dome.
In the past month, multiple women and one man have filed formal complaints against two sitting Democratic male House members and two Republican male senators. The latest turn in the unfolding drama came Thursday when Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock publicized the results of a lie-detector test he took. He says they show at least one accuser, who called his move desperate, isn’t telling the truth.
The rapid-fire accusations in Colorado have come amid national reports of sexual harassment and misconduct that have smashed the careers of powerful men in politics, Hollywood and media, and as women have shared their personal stories on the front lines of the #MeToo movement.
In response, Friday’s meeting at 10 a.m. in Senate room 352 in the Colorado Capitol will focus on whether lawmakers should hire a human resources officer with a background in harassment policy— there currently isn’t one— and whether to bring in a third-party to review how lawmakers currently deal with allegations and formal complaints, which in Colorado are so confidential the public can’t even know how many have been filed.
Leadership also will consider whether the legislature needs a more comprehensive training program about harassment in the workplace for lawmakers and others who work in the statehouse.
How did we get here in the first place?
Stories about an uncomfortable culture for women at the Capitol broke open Nov. 10 when Bente Birkeland of the Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition reported for KUNC that nine legislators, staffers and lobbyists alleged Rep. Lebsock, who is running for state treasurer, “intimidated or made unwanted sexual advances against them.”
Democratic Rep. Faith Winter of Westminster went on the record saying Lebsock made untoward advances to her last year at a bar. Another Democratic lawmaker said he witnessed it. The story also leaned on anecdotes from four unnamed lobbyists who said they considered filing complaints against Lebsock in the past.
Birkeland’s reporting set off a chain reaction of new disclosures and stories in Colorado media that culminated in three more male lawmakers being named in complaints. They are Denver Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal, and Republican Sens. Randy Baumgardner and Jack Tate.
How did Democratic House leadership react to the Lebsock story?
Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran immediately stripped Lebsock as chair of a local government committee. But Duran also faced a backlash for elevating Lebsock to a chairmanship position in the first place when it became known she had been aware of his behavior last year. Duran and others, including Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, called for Lebsock’s resignation from the House.
Lebsock apologized, but he has since pushed back, saying some of the allegations are false or exaggerated. He also said he was being blackmailed and extorted as his name spread across the news, and he felt he was being denied due process as calls mounted for him to resign and exit the race for state treasurer. Lebsock told The Colorado Independent that he passed a polygraph test, and he says the results showed “Faith Winter is lying.” (Lie-detector tests are not allowed as evidence in Colorado courts.) Lebsock released a statement saying he would continue to run for state treasurer. Winter called Lebsock’s move “desperate.”
What about the other complaints?
Days after the Lebsock story exploded, The Denver Post reported a 29-year-old gay man filed a formal complaint against Denver Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who is also gay, alleging the lawmaker groped him during a public function. Rosenthal, who punted an interview request for this story to his attorney, has denied the allegation. The Post also reported Denver Rep. Susan Lontine said a current Republican lawmaker whom she declined to name touched her inappropriately at the Capitol and made lewd comments toward her.
The Post followed up with a robust story that included 75 interviews. The picture it painted made Colorado’s halls of power look more like the after-hours halls of a fraternity house.
More allegations of sexual harassment rolled in, reported by Birkeland of KUNC, against Republican Sens. Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs and Tate of Centennial. A then-25-year-old intern said she didn’t want to be alone with Baumgardner, who made her feel uncomfortable, and who, she said, often pressured her to drink with him in his office. An unnamed female legislative aide also a filed a formal complaint against Baumgardner saying he slapped and grabbed her backside during last year’s legislative session.
As for Tate, an unnamed intern speaking to KUNC “on the condition of anonymity, because she could be involved in an unrelated sexual assault case involving a different person,” said Tate leered at her, commented on her clothing, and told her “if she wanted to move up in the world, give him a call.”
Both Baumgardner and Tate, who did not return voicemails or emails for this story, have denied wrongdoing.
Following reports of allegations against Tate, five female lobbyists defended him in a story for ColoradoPolitics.com, an online political reporting project of Clarity Media, which owns The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs.
One of the women told the publication, “It’s just not true,” about descriptions she read about Tate in the press. “It’s malarkey. It upsets me because — are they friendly guys? Yeah, of course. Everybody’s friendly. They’re politicians, it’s their job to be friendly.” Another woman said, “What we saw in the paper didn’t show some sort of deviant pattern of behavior. The whole thing — a politician’s job is kissing babies and shaking hands. He’s a friendly guy, he’s from the South and has that sort of congenial nature to him. But it’s never been toward me or anyone I’ve seen in a less than completely respectful way.”
All five women, the reporter wrote, “brought their concerns about Tate’s inclusion in the unfolding story to Colorado Politics,” and, “They say they’re alarmed the Centennial Republican could be unfairly caught up in a scandal they agree is bringing long overdue scrutiny to harassment at the state Capitol.”
Data journalist Sandra Fish, reporting for KUNC, pointed out that five of Tate’s defenders lobbied on behalf of bills he sponsored or before Tate’s committee, and three gave money to his campaign.
How did Republican Senate leadership react to the allegations?
Differently than Democratic House Speaker Duran.
Instead of removing Baumgardner and Tate from their chairmanship of committees— Baumgardner chairs the Senate’s Transportation and the Capital Development Committees, and Tate chairs the Business, Labor and Technology Committee— GOP Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City urged those who made allegations in the press to file formal complaints.
“Going forward, Senate Republican leaders cannot and will not be responding to unsubstantiated or anonymous allegations against members appearing in the press, which the existing complaint process is designed to handle,” Grantham said in a statement. “This process exists to protect confidentiality, respect the rights of both accuser and accused, rigorously review the facts, give a fair hearing to all sides, and impose penalties proportionate to any confirmed offense. To handle these matters in any other way contradicts the basic tenants [sic] of fairness, justice, and due process for which America is known.”
In Colorado, Democrats control the House by a comfortable number of seats, and Republicans currently hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate. Legislative elections are next year.
How are complaints now handled at the Capitol?
Because lawmakers, legislative aides and interns in Colorado are at-will employees who don’t work in the executive branch they are exempt from the state’s personnel laws, says Doug Platt, spokesman for the state Department of Personnel & Administration.
So the legislature created its own policy about workplace harassment in the mid-1990s, and updated it four years ago. The policy also prohibits retaliation against someone who files a complaint. Complaints in Colorado are not public, and a state lawyer says no record exists about how many have been filed. Harassment law and HR experts and activists have gone on record with concerns about transparency aspects of the policy.
— Colorado 50/50 (@Colorado50_50) December 14, 2017
If an employee at the statehouse feels her or she has been harassed and wishes to file a formal complaint against a lawmaker, they must do so through a specific “contact person.” Who that contact is depends upon where the victim works. If the allegation is from, say, a current or former intern against a senator, that intern would take it either to the secretary of the senate, Effie Ameen, who has been in the job since 2015, or to Ameen’s designee of a different gender. Ameen, who declined to talk about her role in the process or how she feels about it for this story, could look into a complaint herself or bring in outside help, which the House and Senate have done before, typically a private legal firm called Employer’s Council, which specializes in employment law. (That firm is currently handling Rep. Winter’s complaint against Lebsock,a ccording to media reports; the firm’s director of member engagement said the firm does not disclose its clients because of client confidentiality.) If the victim of harassment works in the House, then the complaint starts with the chief clerk.
But, eventually, legislative leadership gets involved in the complaint process, says Jeremiah Barry, a top state attorney who works in the legislature. The findings of complaints against lawmakers are taken to the House Speaker or Senate president to determine what should be done about them. One lawmaker said that aspect deterred her from filing a complaint.
And in the end, leadership has broad discretion in the outcome.
House or Senate leaders can have a private conversation with the subject of a complaint, or they might require the subject to take additional classes about workplace behavior, says Barry. They could also call for a formal resolution from the rest of the legislature to censure the lawmaker in question. There can also be a formal resolution for expulsion. “That is something that has to be voted on by the entire body, the House and Senate,” Barry says. “But there is a process for a person to be expelled from the body.” (He says that’s something that hasn’t happened in recent memory.)
Recent scrutiny on how— or if— this policy is the best way to handle complaints in practice in Colorado has raised questions about its efficacy, including from House Speaker Duran and Senate President Grantham. Both have said they think there should be more workplace harassment training at the Capitol, and Duran has said a neutral third party should investigate allegations. In recent weeks, women at the Capitol have told media the process of complaints going through leadership creates a chilling effect on coming forward.
That’s why lawmakers and legislative staff are meeting to see if there is more they can do.
What about Colorado’s ethics commission? Can it also handle such complaints?
Colorado does have an entity called the Independent Ethics Commission.
The state constitution says any person may file a written complaint with the five-member panel about alleged wrongdoing of a public official.
So, if someone feels they’ve been harassed by a lawmaker at the Capitol and they don’t want to go through legislative leadership, could they file a complaint with the Independent Ethics Commission instead?
“They could file a complaint here,” says the commission’s director, Dino Ioannides. “That’s an avenue open to them. I would not be able to comment about how that complaint would be acted upon.”
Complaints deemed non-frivolous by the commission become public. Those that are deemed frivolous remain confidential. Ioannides would not say whether anyone has filed a sexual harassment complaint with the commission.
“I can neither confirm nor deny receipt,” he says.
How do other states handle sexual harassment in the legislature?
It’s all over the map.
That’s according to Jon Griffin, who tracks sexual harassment policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states don’t have the staff or HR offices to deal with them, others put their clerk offices in charge, and others are like Colorado with numerous avenues for filing complaints, he says. Because the systems are so different, he says it’s hard to say how a single state stacks up against others.
In October, the NCSL, which is a national organization with offices in Washington, DC and Denver, surveyed state legislatures, reviewed their policies about sexual harassment, and issued a report about what good policies should have. That report included having a definition of sexual harassment, an appeals process, examples of inappropriate behavior, confidentiality provisions, and allowing outside investigators to assist, among others.
Says Griffin about the states: “There’s not enough consistency.”
Photo by Corey Hutchins
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