Sex-harassment panel starts work at Colorado Capitol

Author: Joey Bunch - July 9, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

Colorado State Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, is hugged after she delivered her remarks during a debate in the chamber whether to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, over sexual misconduct allegations against Winter and other peers March 2 in the State Capitol in Denver (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A bipartisan committee of the Colorado legislature began work Monday on policies that could change how sexual harassment complaints are handled at the state Capitol.

The committee will hold four more meetings before making recommendations to legislative leaders who could adopt policies or, possibly, recommend legislation lawmakers could consider when the next session begins in January.

The Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee is concerned about due process for the accused, retaliation against accusers and confidentiality while an investigation is underway.

“Over the next five meetings, I hope this committee will examine ways to improve the Capitol’s workplace policies and procedures,” House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, said as Monday’s meeting began. “And I hope this process will be an opportunity for this committee to exhibit bipartisanship instead of politics and create a policy that is fair and better for everyone who works in the building.”

Last session, six male legislators, three Republicans and three Democrats, were publicly accused of misbehavior. The House voted to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton, a Democrat who switched to Republican the day he was voted out on March 2.

A month later, the Senate held an expulsion vote that failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to oust Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Republican from Hot Sulphur Springs.

Colorado is one of a handful of states looking to address workplace culture in state legislatures in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Lawmakers on Monday referred to the  “political football” the issue can become in a politically driven statehouse, compared to typical workplaces.

California has led the way on the issue, Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Colorado committee.

Months ago,  California set up a legislative group similar to the Colorado panel. The result was a “workplace conduct unit,” an independent investigatory group to receive, investigate and assess complaints.

California also adopted a comprehensive training program, a “strong statement denouncing retaliation,” as well as civil and criminal liabilities for those found to have harassed or retaliated against those who make a claim related to the legislature,” Griffin said.

The Colorado study group on Monday discussed a legislative committee or a human resources office who could investigate and assess the merit of complaints.

Last session, complaints where handled  by House and Senate leaders, then forwarded to an outside investigator who alone did interviews and decided whether the accused or the accuser was more credible. The accused and Senate Republicans found that process to be unfair, especially given the damage an allegation can do to professional and personal reputations.

A one-size policy, however, does not fit  everyone who works in the Capitol, said committee member Bob Gardner, a lawyer and Republican state senator from Colorado Springs.

Lawmakers answer to voters, not an HR department, he said, and lobbyists, reporters and others who work at the Capitol also would not be bound, at least not directly, by legislative policies.

Gardner suggested a situation in which an employee files a complaint after being disciplined by a supervisor. That employee could deem it retaliation when he or she is disciplined again for that work.

“I think we need to make a strong and clear distinction between those things,” he said.

State Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who was one of five women who accused Lebsock, was concerned about accommodations to support and encourage those who might come forward with a complaint.

“It would be helpful to know what access and requirements the committee has for those who both bring the complaint and that are being accused, and does that change if the person bringing the complaint is elected or not,” she said.

The next committee meeting is set for Aug. 15 at 9 a.m. in House Committee Room 15. The hearings stream online via the committee’s web page.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, issued a statement Monday afternoon.

“Rather than being leaders, the legislature still tries to play catch up to practices already common in the private sector,” Moreno said. “So many volunteers and workers come to this building to make Colorado better. We need to do our part to make the experience safer and more professional.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.