Stripping politics from Capitol’s sexual harassment policy proves to be tall task

Bill to overhaul the statehouse harassment policy would make most credible allegations of sexual harassment public

A Colorado representative's desk on Feb 28, 2018. (Photo by John Herrick)

Lawmakers are struggling to come up with a new sexual harassment policy at the Capitol that takes the politics out of the process of holding themselves accountable.

Just how much say legislators should have in punishing colleagues and whether to keep some information confidential as a safeguard against false accusations has slowed progress on the new policy.

What’s on the table now is a legislative package that victims’ advocates say makes incremental progress but does not go far enough to turn around a culture inside the state Capitol where harassment often goes unreported because people fear political repercussions.

Overhauling the harassment policy was a top priority at the close of the 2018 legislative session. Last year, at least five lawmakers faced accusations of buttocks slapping, sexual advances or lewd comments. In the Democratic-controlled House, lawmakers responded with the historic expulsion of a state representative. In the Republican-controlled Senate, three senators facing allegations kept their seats until one resigned.

As currently drafted, a key provision in SB-244, sets up a non-partisan office to receive and oversee investigations into sexual harassment. Under the current policy, party leadership handles those complaints, which can politicize the process and discourage people from speaking up, lawmakers say.

But lawmakers would still have a role in deciding what becomes of those investigations. Under a separate proposed policy change, a committee of lawmakers — divided evenly among Republicans and Democrats  — would then review the investigations and decide whether to recommend punishment. 

Some lawmakers wanted to see several outside experts sitting on this committee. This, they said, would help break partisan gridlock and decision-making. That effort failed.

Lawmakers also are grappling with how much information should become publicly available following a complaint of sexual misconduct. Currently, the media is denied access to sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers.

The bill would require reports on the total number of complaints received by the proposed Office of Legislative Workplace Relations to be released annually. These reports would not include the names of the complainant, respondent, or witnesses.

Complaints that an investigator determines to be credible — or “more likely than not” to have occurred — would be summarized in a report and released to the public. Lawmakers on the committee, however, could block the release with a two-thirds vote.

Releasing all this information, even when a lawmaker is not at fault, could still harm reputations, some lawmakers argue. Others say there should be privacy protections for the people bringing forward a complaint.

“It is a set of considerations that are conflicting by their nature: privacy vs transparency,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs who is co-sponsoring the bill.

Lawmakers are also working out whether to provide the names of the people who file complaints against lawmakers to the committee. Gardner argues that this information is common in court and college sexual harassment cases and should be released to lawmakers. But others argue it can deter people from speaking up. 

Holly Tarry is a former animal welfare lobbyist who joined four other women is accusing former Rep. Steve Lebsock of making unwanted sexual advances before his ouster. She said releasing the names of people filing complaints could prompt lawmakers to retaliate by blocking complainants from attending stakeholder meetings or other high-level conversations. Being sidelined from those discussions, she said, could stifle someone’s ability to do his or her job.

“There are a bunch of different ways where a power-holder at the Capitol can hurt you,” Tarry said. She added, “There are absolutely ripples all across the Capitol when you are known to be willing to confront bad behavior.”

Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who also accused Lebsock of unwanted sexual advances, said she will be introducing a joint resolution that would keep the names of the people who file complaints confidential.

Despite the sticking points, backers of the bill say it’s an important step toward setting up a new process for handling sexual harassment following last year’s session rattled by scandals. Following the tumultuous session, lawmakers convened a summer committee to hash out a new Capitol policy on harassment, running into a number of partisan roadblocks on several critical policy questions.

Democrats, who control the Capitol, are attempting to move ahead with the overhaul with bipartisan support. All session, they have faced accusations of Democratic overreach. And GOP stall tactics could run out the clock and prevent lawmakers from passing dozens of bills before they gavel out on May 3.

Those efforts have brought the harassment policy bill down to the wire, leaving some victims’ advocates disappointed.

Erin Hottenstein, founder of Colorado 50-50, a group that works to elect women to office, said she wishes it was a higher priority this year.

“I think it is critical to get your own house in order,” she said.