Lawmakers reconsider Gold Dome’s sexual harassment policy after session fraught with allegations
“It’s going to take a little bit more thought to figure out what is the best process for holding ourselves accountable,” committee member says.
On a hot Monday morning this week, Colorado lawmakers returned to a mostly empty committee room at the state Capitol to try to bring closure to an issue that ignited in the dead of winter and smoldered throughout this year’s session.
“The Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee will come to order,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran before she brought down the gavel with a subtle clap.
Thus began an effort to forge a new sexual harassment policy in the aftermath of a session in which at least five lawmakers were accused of making unwanted sexual advances or lewd comments toward fellow lawmakers and others who work at the statehouse.
The question of how to handle those complaints under the politically-charged Gold Dome was left largely unresolved when the session ended in May. The committee of three Democratic and three Republican state lawmakers was appointed by the leadership in the House and Senate to study the statehouse’s workplace harassment policy and, potentially, come up with a change ahead of the 2019 session.
The extent to which sexual misconduct allegations disrupted the work of this year’s session and cost the state can’t be understated.
In March, Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton was expelled from the House of Representatives over allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances on five women, including one lawmaker whom he asked to come home with him from the bar. He was also accused of unbuttoning the top button on the shirt of a former legislative aide.
Lebsock, a longtime Democrat, became a Republican after fellow Democrats demanded his ouster from the legislature.
In April, Democrats attempted to oust Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, who was accused of slapping the butt of a former aide multiple times and creating a hostile and offensive work environment. He was stripped of his summer committee memberships as a result but kept his seat in the Senate.
Three other lawmakers — two Republicans and one Democrat — were accused of sexual harassment but faced no formal punishment.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican, mostly dismissed sexual misconduct complaints brought against three members of his party: Baumgardner, Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial and Larry Crowder of Alamosa. In the House, Duran, a Democrat, called on Lebsock to resign before an investigation into allegations of harassment were completed. She also stripped him and Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who was accused of making unwanted sexual advances on another gay man at a political event in 2012, of their committee leadership positions. Duran dismissed the complaint against Rosenthal because the allegations occurred before he was in office.
Hoping to iron out a policy that can be enforced fairly and consistently, leaders from both the House and Senate called for the summer committee to meet over the interim between sessions. From the Senate, they appointed Sens. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Westminster, and Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. From the House, they named Lori Saine, a Republican from Firestone, and Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster. Speaker Duran — a term-limited Democrat from Denver — appointed herself to the committee that she chairs.
Several of these lawmakers have personal experience with the harassment issue.
Winter made national headlines with her complaint against Lebsock, in part prompting four other women to come forward with complaints that led to his ouster. Martinez Humenik served as a contact person for people filing harassment complaints. She stood by Senate President Kevin Grantham when he called for the Denver District Attorney to investigate sexual assault cases — which Democrats viewed as punting the issue given that harassment complaints don’t rise to the level of criminal assault required for the District Attorney’s involvement. She also filed a harassment complaint of her own against Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, for using the women’s bathroom. Winter and Martinez Humenik are facing off for a battleground Senate seat this November. But they worked together last session on legislation to set new standards for how state colleges and universities deal with sexual assault cases.
Gardner, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped to effectively kill the bill by adding due process protections that its supporters, including victims advocates, said would discourage students from filing complaints. The bill was formally voted down in committee in the final days of the session.
There were no fireworks Monday during the committee’s first of five meetings. The lawmakers agree the Capitol’s policy on harassment needs to change.
“I hope that this process will be an opportunity for this committee to put aside partisanship and politics to create a workplace policy that is fair and better for everyone who works in the building,” Duran said during her opening remarks.
But members of the committee have split records when voting on whether to expel Baumgardner and Lebsock from office over harassment allegations. And there is already some disagreement among them over how complaints should be investigated, how punishments should be handed down, and how to change what some consider a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol.
Here are three topics to watch for in the months ahead…
Under the current policy, a person accused of harassment is given a copy of a complaint when it is filed. Women who have filed complaints have said this practice creates a fear the respondent will retaliate against them.
“There has to be a better process for how the accused gets notified to protect the victims,” said Cassie Tanner, a former legislative aide and one of the five women accusing Lebsock of unwanted sexual advances. “That really keeps people from reporting.”
She noted that Lebsock delivered a 28-page written defense to lawmakers after five women accused him of harassing them. The dossier included information about the sex lives of some of those making accusations against him. Lawmakers later said this was a form of retaliation against the complainants for their allegations. And it turned out to be a key reason why all but nine Republicans in the House of Representatives joined all Democrats to vote Lebsock out of office.
According to an April report presented to lawmakers by the Investigations Law Group, a Denver-based consulting firm hired by party leadership in the House and Senate, about 30 percent of statehouse workers see or experience harassment, but only 13 percent report it. One reason, according to the report, is fear of retaliation.
Moreno said some information in these complaints could be redacted to protect the complainant. He added there must be confidentiality protections for the respondent so that there is no “judgment of the case in the court of public opinion.”
Martinez Humenik agreed. She told the committee that often times these issues are played out in the media.
“It can often times include opinion when pieces are written rather than all the facts because the facts are not known,” said Martinez Humenik, who voted against Baumgardner’s expulsion.
But lawmakers are also concerned that preventing disclosure of these documents could raise First Amendment issues.
“We can talk about confidentiality but we cannot take away freedom of speech. That is going to be a balance,” said Winter, who was the first woman to come out publicly with her formal complaint against Lebsock.
One preventative measure under consideration is mandatory training for lawmakers and legislative staffers, as well as for others who work at the statehouse, including lobbyists.
Moreno is among the committee members who believes this training is necessary.
“You are a part of the workplace environment at that point. So I think it is important that we all recognize the importance of a safe workplace,” he said.
But Gardner said training requirements for lobbyists restricts the First Amendment right to free speech.
“Requiring anybody to go to some course before they speak to me is a restriction on their right to speak to me,” he said.
Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat from Denver, said she didn’t want to file a formal complaint after she says Sen. Larry Crowder, a Republican from Alamosa, touched her on the House floor and made a sexually explicit comment to her at a social event. One reason, she said, is that she didn’t feel comfortable approaching Republican party leadership in the Senate about the incident. She said she filed a complaint with House leadership. Later, she said, Senate President Grantham called a meeting that included her and Crowder. After that, she said, there was no action taken on a matter that she feels was left unresolved.
“I expected something to be done. Literally, other than the investigation, nothing was done,” she said of the Senate’s Republican leadership. “I feel angry.”
Lontine said knowing Crowder faced no formal consequences created some distrust in the process.
“I would say that’s a huge barrier to people filing a complaint,” she said.
Grantham and other lawmakers involved in the complaint process have said they want an independent office rather than politicians to handle the complaints. California recently did just that, setting up an independent unit to investigate sexual harassment complaints and recommend punishments to the General Assembly.
Passing these complaints — which can be emotionally and politically-charged — to disinterested staffers increases trust in the process and a willingness to come forward, said Valerie Simons, associate vice chancellor and Title IX Coordinator at the University of Colorado Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance.
“That neutrality is incredibly important. Having checks and balances of bias is important,” Simons said.
Currently, House or Senate leadership — depending on which chamber a complaint is filed — decides what punishment, if any, is necessary based on an investigation by a private firm. However, in the Baumgardner’s case, political pressure by Democrats, including a filibuster lasting hours on a premier transportation funding bill, led to the introduction of a resolution to expel the Republican senator.
Investigations Law Group recommends that lawmakers set up a new independent office to receive and investigate complaints and that a bipartisan committee of lawmakers make recommendations to the full chamber for any punishment. Details about staffing levels for such a new office and how much it would cost are yet to be determined.
Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he likes the idea of having a committee of lawmakers come up with recommendations for punishment. He also wants this committee to be able to meet in a sequestered, executive session to request further testimony from witnesses, respondents and the complainants. Those who decide not to testify, he said, would not be punished.
But Winter, having lodged a complaint herself, said she has concerns that having to appear before a panel may discourage people from coming forward
“How many times do they have to tell their story? Is it a trial-like setting or a conversation-like setting?” she said.
Gardner said he is not trying to discourage people from filing complaints. Instead, he said, he wants a forum that is fair, considerate and thorough.
The committee will meet up to four more times to iron out their different views on what the process should look like for holding lawmakers accountable. The next meeting is at 9:00 a.m. on August 15 and the agenda will be posted here.
In the meantime, the question remains up in the air.
“Our bosses are our constituents,” Moreno said. “It’s going to take a little bit more thought to figure out what is the best process for holding ourselves accountable.”
Title photo: A Colorado representative’s desk on Feb 28, 2018. Photo by John Herrick
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