Lawmakers selected to tackle workplace harassment policy in wake of session marked by sexual harassment scandals

Colorado's Capitol, where Democrats currently control both chambers. (Photo by John Herrick)

A lawmaker whose sexual harassment complaint led to the historic expulsion of a fellow Democrat from the House of Representatives will serve on a summer committee to consider changes to the state Capitol’s workplace harassment policy.

House leadership selected Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who played a central role in removing embattled former Rep. Steve Lebsock from office over allegations of sexual harassment, to serve on the Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee. She will be joined by five fellow lawmakers, several of whom have taken markedly different stances on how the issue of sexual harassment should be handled in the Capitol.

“I hope that we can work together toward the common goal of making the Capitol better for everyone,” Winter told The Colorado Independent.I don’t think it’s going to be easy work.”

Also serving on the committee is the lawmaker Winter is hoping to unseat in the general election — Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik. Martinez Humenik also served as a “contact person” for people who want to file harassment complaints and filed a complaint of her own this past session against Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, for using the women’s bathroom.

Several workers in the state Capitol came forward with allegations of sexual harassment last session as the #MeToo movement gained momentum across the country. The movement led to the expulsion of Lebsock, and the attempted expulsion of Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur, who was accused of slapping the butt of a former aide multiple times and creating a hostile and offensive work environment.

The study committee is evenly split among Democrats who voted to expel these two lawmakers and Republicans who did not.

House and Senate leadership also appointed Sens. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, and Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Firestone. Outgoing House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a term-limited Democrat from Denver, appointed herself to the committee.

Duran faced criticism for assigning Lebsock to the chair of the House Local Government Committee when she knew about sexual harassment allegations against him. She later stripped him of the leadership role and called for his resignation.  

“I want to end my term as speaker with a clear path forward on reforms that will change the culture of the Capitol and preserve the integrity of the legislature,” she said in a statement.

Winter said she wants complaints, investigations and disciplinary decisions handled by a third party. Currently, complaints are reported to lawmakers, investigated by an outside legal firm, and acted on by party leadership. 

“As much as we can depoliticize the process, the better it will be,” she said.

Duran and Winter both voted to expel Lebsock, while Saine joined a minority of Republicans who voted against his expulsion.

In the Senate, Moreno voted to expel Baumgardner, while Gardner and Martinez Humenik voted against the resolution in what was a mostly party-line vote.   

In a statement, Gardner said he hopes to bring due process protections to the conversation.

“My hope is that we adopt a standard that not only fully complies with existing law, but also embraces a higher, aspirational standard for respectful and professional decorum in the Statehouse,” he said.

Martinez Humenik said she wants to bring more clarity, transparency and consistency to the process.

“There’s still too much confusion about the policies and procedures we currently have in place at the Capitol, which can be a deterrent when people are facing the already-daunting question of whether to come forward with a complaint,” Martinez Humenik said in a statement.

Gardner and Martinez Humenik butted heads on the issue of sexual assault when Gardner, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, added more due process protections for students accused of sexual assault to a bill sponsored by Martinez Humenik dealing with sexual assault on college campuses. Martinez Humenik said at the time the changes backed by Gardner would make it difficult for women to come forward with allegations. The bill died in the Senate Appropriations Committee in the last days of the session.

A report by the Investigations Law Group, a consulting firm based in Denver, found more than a quarter of those who work at the state Capitol observe sexual harassment, but only 13 percent report the incidents. The report said power dynamics between lawmakers and other statehouse workers is an underlying issue that may prevent workers from coming forward.

Baumgardner was one of three Republican senators who faced allegations of sexual harassment and the only one who faced any disciplinary consequences. Senate President Kevin Grantham dismissed complaints against Republican Sens. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, who was accused of making sexual comments to another lawmaker, and Jack Tate of Centennial, who was accused of flirting with an intern.

In addition to Lebsock in the House, Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a Democrat from Denver, was accused of making unwanted sexual advances on another man. Duran dismissed the formal complaint in January because she said the incident occurred before he was serving as a state representative. Rosenthal has already lost his re-election bid, with some delegates telling the Denver Post at a state assembly earlier this year that they voted against him because of the allegations.

The committee will meet up to five times this summer. No meetings have been scheduled.

Colorado Capitol early on May 10 after adjournment. Photo by John Herrick