Colorado House of Representatives expels Rep. Steve Lebsock in historic vote following sexual harassment allegations

Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, embraces Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, ahead of a historic vote to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock from office, who Winter accuses of sexual harassment, on Friday. March 2, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

The Colorado House of Representatives voted on Friday to remove embattled Rep. Steve Lebsock from office over allegations of sexual harassment, a historic move that comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Over seven hours of often-wrenching testimony, lawmakers wrestled with whether to expel Lebsock, who has been accused of a pattern of sexual harassment against a lawmaker, lobbyist and legislative aide, among others. They voted 52-9 to approve his expulsion.

“On Monday, for the first time in nearly two years, I’m going to come to a building where I’m not going to be worried about retaliation from someone I stood up to,” Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, one of Lebsock’s accusers, told reporters after the vote. “These actions are not OK. There is accountability.”

The drama didn’t end with the testimony and vote. Shortly after the vote, public radio reporter Bente Birkeland, who has repeatedly broken stories on sexual harassment in the capitol, reported that Lebsock, who was serving as a Thornton Democrat, had changed his party affiliation to Republican about an hour before the expulsion vote was cast. That move leaves in question which party will get to name his replacement, Democrats or Republicans.

Throughout the day, lawmaker after lawmaker weighed in on the historic expulsion, the first in more than a century, choking back tears as they revealed their own personal stories of sexual harassment.

Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, was shaky and furious when she said she, too, is a survivor of sexual harassment and assault. She said she has never named her assailants out of fear of retaliation.

“This is our job: to speak up for those who can speak and those who can’t,” Esgar told lawmakers.

Ahead of the vote, Republicans appeared likely to vote against expulsion, citing concerns about due process and the short timeline in the lead up to the vote. They also questioned what legal standard would be used to cast such a judicial vote and argued that it was up to the voters of Lebsock’s district to determine his fate.

“I’m not here to defend Steve Lebsock,” said Majority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, who voted against the resolution. “But I do think this process is unbecoming of this body.”

But a handful of Republicans said that questions of process aside, Lebsock clearly retaliated against three women who came forward publicly with their complaints. That behavior, they said, violated the state’s sexual harassment policy. Lawmakers said Lebsock created a hostile work environment; so hostile that one lawmaker said he bought a bullet-proof vest and had not only been wearing it to the Capitol, he was wearing it that very moment. 

“I’m wearing kevlar because I fear for retaliation,” House Minority Assistant Alec Garnett, D-Denver, a man of six-foot-five, told lawmakers.

Garnett was at Stoney’s Bar and Grill for the annual Sine Die Party in 2016 when Winter alleges Lebsock asked her to leave a bar with him after repeated refusals. Garnett says after he spoke about the event publicly, Lebsock told him, “I’m gonna take you down.”

The report by a private legal firm found Lebsock likely asked lobbyists for sex, opened a button on the shirt of a legislative aide, and asked Winter to leave a bar with him after making sexual comments, leaving her wide-eyed and stunned, according to witnesses in the report. The report says these allegations were “more likely than not” to have occurred.

Lebsock denies the allegations. In November, he issued an apology to three women, claiming he either does not remember the incidents or was joking.

But he later called these women liars, saying their motivations are political. Lebsock threatened to sue Rep. Winter during a recent interview with Jon Caldara on the Devil’s Advocate over defamation. That same month, lawmakers received a letter in their mailboxes, which included sexually-explicit allegations about the accusers, lawmakers say.

This behavior was cited by Republicans who joined Democrats in voting for expulsion. Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, said the letter sent to lawmakers is a “slam dunk” case of retaliation.

An unrepentant and at times tearful Lebsock said he was not awarded due process. He has repeatedly disputed the report by the Employers Council and the conduct of the investigator, Michele Sturgell.  In the last moments of testimony, House Speaker Crisanta Duran repeated the calls of other members for Lebsock to resign rather than face expulsion. He refused. 

“I wish everyone involved in this process well. I wish all the best for the accusers. And I hope for the best for all of you,” Lebsock said ahead of the vote. “I love this institution. It’s been an honor of my life to serve the people of Colorado. And I was willing to fight this year for the people of Colorado.”   

Title Photo: Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, embraces Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, ahead of a historic vote to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock from office, who Winter accuses of sexual harassment, on Friday. March 2, 2018. Photo by John Herrick.