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Democrats call on GOP legislative leaders to take harassment training over jokes

Author: Marianne Goodland - September 20, 2018 - Updated: September 21, 2018

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Colorado statehouse Democrats are demanding that two Republican leaders in Colorado’s House and Senate — House Minority Leader Patrick Neville and Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert — undergo sexual harassment training.

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House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Franktown’s Facebook post on Brett Kavanaugh spoof.

The request is in response to a Facebook post Neville, R-Franktown, on Saturday. The post refers to an article, written by the Christian news satire site Babylon Bee, that appeared to make light of a sexual assault allegation that surfaced Sept. 12 against U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The allegation was made by Christine Blaisey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University in California. She claims that Kavanaugh assaulted her 35 years ago at a party when both were in high school. Ford was 15 at the time of the alleged incident; Kavanaugh was 17.

The allegations were made public by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and Ford later detailed her allegations in an interview with the Washington Post.

Later, 65 women penned a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is reviewing the nomination, to testify to Kavanagh’s good character.

Neville’s Facebook post drew joking comments on the Babylon Bee article from several members of the GOP caucus, including Reps. Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs and Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch.

Holbert, R-Parker, also poked fun at the post.

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Response to Neville post by Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert and Rep. Shane Sandridge.

Colorado Public Radio first reported that Holbert and the other Republicans had made light of the allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.

In a statement issued Monday through the Senate GOP spokesman, Holbert denied making fun of the allegation against Kavanaugh, claiming he didn’t know about it when he responded to the Facebook post, despite the fact that the allegation of sexual misconduct had been in the news for four days by then.

Holbert doubled down on his denial on Wednesday. According to a statement issued by the Senate GOP office, Holbert’s comments “came in response to a Babylon Bee parody, widely shared on social media, that took a playful swipe at California Senator Feinstein but DID NOT mention anything about sex or sexual misconduct.”

“To claim that I was making light of those allegations before I knew about them is false,” Holbert said in the statement.

Holbert and Neville are both on the General Assembly’s executive committee that will eventually decide on changes to the General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy. Sexual harassment complaints have traditionally been handled by the leadership of the House and Senate.

On Thursday Democratic lawmakers insisted that Holbert and Neville should both undertake diversity and sexual harassment training in the wake of the Facebook post.

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Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker looks over his paperwork during the opening day of the Colorado legislature on Jan. 10. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

A letter sent Thursday to the executive committee — signed by 15 of the 16 Senate Democrats and 27 of the House’s 36 Democrats, including Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver — said sexual assault and sexual harassment are not “laughing matters.”

Holbert and Neville should “attend additional training before any vote or recommendation on the development and implementation of new sexual harassment and sexual assault policies,” the letter said.

“We cannot and will not remain silent,” the letter continued. “The General Assembly has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, held mandatory trainings, and put together an interim committee to recommend new policies and processes for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Capitol. All of this will have been done in vain if these elected officials in positions of power, no matter what trainings they do, no matter how much money we invest, or how many committee hearings we hold, are dismissive of victims.”

Through a spokesman, Holbert told Colorado Public Radio Thursday “[t]he news report was based on a false premise, so the request is based on a false premise.”

Thursday afternoon, Neville issued the following statement: “When I created a post for my personal Facebook page this past Saturday morning, the country knew nothing of the accusations made by Christine Blasey Ford. There was no subtext of joking about sexual harassment or any effort to make light of a serious situation. I shared the post because it had reminded me with amusement of a game I played as a child.

However, my actions, and those of Minority Leader Holbert have been taken vastly out of context. Democrats have written a letter to the Executive Committee, insisting that Minority Leader Holbert and I undergo further sexual harassment training. But what they haven’t told you is that precisely because Republican Leadership agrees with the importance of sexual harassment training, we made the decision to personally pay for additional training earlier this year, above and beyond what was required and what the Democrat caucus did themselves.

What is worth questioning is the motivation of those who saw my post on Saturday and then waited over 48 hours to say anything about it. The Democrats letter is based fundamentally on a flawed news report, which took quotations out of context and didn’t tell the whole story. This is a campaign season political stunt rather than a serious request, manufactured by Democrats because they know damning details will soon be made public about workplace misconduct at the General Assembly by one of their own. This is all orchestrated and timed to deflect attention away from their own problems. Attacking the character of innocent individuals for political gain cannot be tolerated.”

According to a study on the Capitol’s workplace culture, released last April, 28 percent of those surveyed reported witnessing sexual harassment but few report it, and 72 percent of those who report it are unhappy with the results.

Only 45 percent of those surveyed thought the existing workplace harassment policy is taken seriously.

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House Minority Leader Patrick Neville (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda)

During the 2018 legislative session, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct complaints were made against two Democrats in the House and three Republicans in the Senate.

In the House, Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock was expelled on a 52-9 vote after five women filed complaints alleging 11 incidents of sexual misconduct. A complaint lodged against Rep. Paul Rosenthal of Denver was dismissed by Duran because the alleged incident took place before he was a lawmaker.

In the Senate, Republican Sens. Jack Tate of Centennial, Larry Crowder of Alamosa and Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs were all accused of sexual harassment and investigations found the accusations credible. Only Baumgardner’s complaint was referred to the Senate for an expulsion vote, which failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote.

A week later, a second investigation found another set of allegations, made by a nonpartisan Senate staffer, were also credible. Baumgardner was stripped of all of his summer legislative committee assignments, in effect keeping him away from the state Capitol for most of the rest of the year.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.