Colorado lawmakers who don’t attend sexual harassment training could be publicly shamed

The Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee met for the third time at the state Capitol on Aug. 30, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

The six Colorado lawmakers charged with drafting a new sexual harassment policy for a statehouse stung by scandal and accusation last session are contemplating a good dose of public shaming to prompt colleagues into attending harassment prevention training sessions.

Discussion last week turned to public pressure on lawmakers — perhaps by posting attendance online — after some committee members drew a firm line against making attendance mandatory.

“This is just a stake in the ground for me,” Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican who represents Colorado Springs said, emphasizing that he thinks training is important but that no one should be forced to go.

“They should be held up to public scorn and shame for not doing their training,” he said, adding, “If my constituents don’t care, then my constituents don’t care.”

Requiring a lawmaker to attend versus publicly pressuring him or her into it “may be a distinction without a difference but it is an important distinction,” Gardner said.

There was little pushback among the committee members, which is divided among three Republicans and three Democrats, to use public shaming to pressure lawmakers into attending harassment training and the committee informally agreed to further pursue the idea. What that training might look like is still undefined. And it remains to be seen whether it can change a culture described in a report earlier this year as one where “power dynamics play a large role in sexual harassment” at the Capitol.

And training alone can be ineffective, Patricia McMahon, program manager at the Denver field office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told the committee. An organization has to want to change, she said.

“Without that, you might as well not do it,” McMahon told the committee.

The Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee, which is attempting to change the capitol’s harassment policy, met last Thursday in the third of five meetings. The goal is to craft a new statehouse harassment policy to be voted on during the 2019 legislative session. So far, the work sessions have been marked most notably by near-empty committee rooms and a philosophical divide over how much control to assert over the behavior of their colleagues and others who work beneath the Gold Dome. During the last meeting, there was also a sense of reservation about the ability of new policy to change a workplace culture. 

“We can make all the laws in the world,” said Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Thornton. “But if you can’t change people’s behavior — and if they don’t want to — we can’t legislate that.”

Five lawmakers were named in sexual harassment allegations during the session that ended in May. The turmoil that ensued included the expulsion of former Rep. Steve Lebsock in March, who was accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward five women, including Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster and a member of the interim committee. 

The tumultuous session was emblematic of the #MeToo movement. An Associated Press tally found at least 30 state lawmakers have been kicked out of office or resigned following allegations of sexual harassment since the start of 2017. And about two dozen states have since acted to change their harassment policies following a series of recent allegations, according to an AP analysis.

The committee is also operating on the eve of a general election that will see two of its members, Winter and Martinez Humenik, battle each other for Martinez Humenik’s seat. With Republicans holding onto the Senate by just one seat, the contest between the two is a marquee race. Winter’s role in filing the first public complaint against Lebsock came under attack earlier this summer when conservative KNUS radio host Chuck Bonniwell referred to Winter as “overweight, unpleasant, vicious, amoral human being.” He added, “She’ll knock on any door you want. I mean she’s a hard worker. She’s come to our door. ‘Hey, I’m Faith Winter.’ You’re kinda like, ‘oh great to see you. Great to see you, Faith. Who you screwing today? What human being are you filing against as part of your corrupt policy?’”

In a Facebook post, Martinez Humenik demanded that Bonniwell apologize. During the last session, Martinez Humenik filed a complaint of her own, this one against Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, for using the women’s bathroom. The investigation is complete but neither Martinez Humenik nor Kagan have released the findings. Winter and Martinez Humenik have worked on legislation dealing with sexual misconduct on college campuses together. That effort came to a halt in the Senate Judiciary Committee this session when their now fellow interim committee member Gardner added due process protections to the bill that victims’ advocates said would intimidate victims, keeping them from coming forward. Backers of the original bill pulled their support when it passed the committee.  

Another key member on the interim committee is House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a term-limited Democrat from Denver. At the start of the legislative session, she 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.

Duran appointed herself as chair of the interim committee. She has said she wants to help change the workplace culture at the statehouse before her term in office ends on Jan. 4, 2019, the first day of the next legislative session. She said she hopes training will play a key role.

After the committee meeting on Thursday, Duran said she was optimistic about achieving a culture change. She pointed to the agreement on training for lawmakers. But she was cautious.

“The devil’s in the details,” she told The Colorado Independent. “I think we need to continue to think about how it can be as effective as possible.”

In addition to training, the discussion over the three meetings has broached a range of various approaches to changing the culture of the statehouse. Martinez Humenik said clarity around policies like dress codes may be necessary for workers to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Winter disagreed. She said a conversation about dress codes exemplifies victim blaming —  how women allow themselves to be harassed based on how they dress and how they behave.

“I don’t think that this is what this committee was planned for,” Winter said.

Another factor is cost. Martinez Humenik said it will cost money to hire an outside facilitator and to develop a training manual. Plus, she said, lawmakers have busy schedules.

“We all have different schedules,” said Martinez Humenik, who supports annual training for lawmakers. She added in a perfect world, there would be frequent training for everyone. But, she said, “Our world isn’t perfect. And we don’t have infinite funds.”  

But, Winter argued, sexual harassment also comes at a cost in the form of attorney fees and investigations. Last session’s sexual harassment scandals at the Capitol cost taxpayers about $270,000, according to KUNC. This includes the cost to hire Investigations Law Group, a private legal firm, to study the Capitol’s harassment culture and make recommendations for changes, the hiring of a human resource officer, attorney fees for lawmakers defending against allegations, and per diem and staffing for summer committee.  

Duran and Winter both want to require training for lobbyists in addition to lawmakers. That idea was met with resistance.

“I just do not believe that we have the authority to tell them that they have to go to training in order to lobby us,” Gardner said.

He has said there is a First Amendment issue with requiring lobbyists to have training, especially volunteer lobbyists.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, said maybe lobbyists should instead sign a code of conduct when they register with the state.

The committee tabled that discussion for a later date.

The fact that the state Capitol has such a mix of workers is what makes the questions around how to deal with workplace culture so complicated, said Meghan Reynes Matthews, a lobbyist with Siegel Public Affairs representing victims’ advocates.

“I don’t think this is an easy row to hoe,” said Reynes Matthews.

‘Members of the general assembly need to step up’

A policy proposed in a 235-page report is the foundation for the discussion as lawmakers work to change Joint Rule 38, the state’s harassment policy. But so far, the discussion has done little to broker a consensus on the bigger questions at hand, such as who makes decisions over punishment for harassers. A key criticism with the current policy is that party leaders who have a partisan bias are largely responsible for disciplinary decisions.

Who instead should make those decisions is where the conversation veered off to during a meeting last week.

Jeremiah Barry, an assistant director and team leader with the Office of Legislative Legal Services who is helping to guide the conversation, asked if there was consensus among the committee members that the human resource director should be responsible for hiring an investigator to look into any complaint.

Gardner said no. He was asked to explain. He breathed deeply into the mic, rested his head in his hand, and said the question is getting too far ahead.

He said there is a clear distinction between complaints made against lawmakers and other workers in the state Capitol. Some complaints have political implications. He said that decisions involving lawmakers should be made by a bipartisan committee of lawmakers. This committee, he said, should also be responsible for recommending disciplinary action to the full General Assembly.

Duran then jumped in. She said there should be “safeguards” to prevent a split vote along party lines. There should also be experts on the panel, she said, such as a victims’ advocate and an employment law professional, in addition to lawmakers. The best way to make sure people are treated fairly, she said, is to have people without a partisan bent help make recommendations for disciplinary action.

Gardner said one safeguard is that lawmakers would recognize the importance of maintaining trust in the institution.

“We’re elected to do some things, if we don’t do them, asking others to do them for us or saying ‘I need other people to help vote,’ I believe is an abrogation of our responsibility,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s the members of the general assembly that have this responsibility.”

Duran said there at least has to be a recommendation from third parties.

“I think that’s the closest way that we are going to get to taking the politics out of it,” she said.

Winter agreed. She said some people did not come forward with complaints last session because they thought politics would prevent accountability. She said having input from experts could help address the perception that there is no recourse.

“I think this helps complainants come forward,” she said. “That there are resources and they will be treated fairly.”  

But Gardner reiterated his concern.

“Members of the general assembly need to step up and do this,” he said.

“There are some points of agreement and some points of disagreement,” Duran said, closing out the conversation as the morning break approached.

Duran said the committee will soon go over the “very long list” of areas of disagreement.

Gardner then asked Barry, of Legislative Legal Services, to draft a separate bill with his recommendations.

“Please draft a different version,” Gardner said. “We’ll talk.”