Originally published on June 30, 2018 10:51 am
Nine legislators, staffers and lobbyists are alleging that Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat running for state treasurer, harassed, intimidated or made unwanted sexual advances against them. And in response to our reporting, a top Democratic leader is calling on Lebsock to “do the right thing and resign.”
Rep. Faith Winter said Lebsock tried to get her to leave a bar with him in 2016. Both were attending a party to celebrate the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers, lobbyists, staff, the governor and members of the media attended the event a few blocks from the Capitol Building.
Winter alleges that Lebsock suggested sexual acts the two could do to make each other happy because it was the end of the legislative session and they deserved to be happy.
“Steve Lebsock’s behavior is egregious,” Winter said. “It’s wide[spread], and it’s time to — instead of isolating him — actually protect the victims.”
Winter, a Democrat, said she repeatedly refused Lebsock’s advances, but he wouldn’t stop and instead got angrier and more aggressive. She said he was standing over her and grabbing her elbow and she didn’t feel safe.
Others, speaking both on the record and anonymously, said they witnessed the incident and others involving Lebsock during work days at the Capitol and its nearby offices.
That includes House Assistant Majority Leader Alec Garnett, who recalled the end of session party. He said he was standing nearby when Winter signaled to him that Lebsock was harassing her. Garnett said he stepped in: “I said, ‘Hey Steve. I’m going to get you an Uber.’ And I remember him saying, ‘F--k you Garnett.’”
Lebsock, when contacted for this story and told of the wide ranging concerns regarding his behavior, initially said: “I’m not sure exactly what you’re referencing.”
Lebsock then expressed support for the #metoo social media movement where the victims of sexual abuse and harassment are creating a united front across the country.
“The ‘me too’ movement has afforded victims of sexual harassment an opportunity to talk about some of the things that have happened in their lives and I think that’s a good way for people to start the healing process,” Lebsock said. “I think that’s about all I’m willing to say at this point because I’m not sure what you’re referencing at all.”
The conversation ended shortly afterwards. Lebsock did not return a subsequent voicemail seeking specific reaction to Winter’s allegations.
Garnett said the 2016 incident strained his working relationship with Lebsock, since both are Democrats.
“We’re a team, our caucus, we tend to wade through the trenches together, and when there’s sort of a break in the chain like that, it can really make people uncomfortable and I think that’s exactly what happened,” Garnett said.
Two days after the incident, Winter spoke to legislative leadership and the General Assembly's legal staff, but did not file a formal complaint or go public. She feared that her reputation would be hurt and it would make it harder for her to do the work of her constituents. Winter also had concerns about retaliation from Lebsock.
The incident nonetheless affected her work life, she said. For instance, her office was near Lebsock’s in a building across the street from the Capitol. Winter said she avoided her office for five months because of the incident. But one time when she was there and the halls were quiet, she took off her shoes so Lebsock wouldn’t hear her walking by his office.
Winter also said Lebsock later left her a voicemail and said he was sorry. As part of an informal mediation process with party leaders and legal staff he said that he would stop drinking and get therapy.
There are other alleged incidents involving Lebsock including one in just the last month. Winter said learning about that and other alleged cases in recent years along with the national movement of people speaking up against sexual harassment is why she is going public now.
“At the time I told Rep. Lebsock that if I ever heard of him harassing another woman I would be the first to go public,” Winter said.
One lobbyist said she has always kept quiet because she didn’t want to rock the boat.
“He straight up asked if I would f--k him," the lobbyist said, speaking anonymously.
The lobbyist said the incident happened when she was in Lebsock’s office discussing policy.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that why you have interns?’ which in retrospect is really terrible, but I was just trying to think of a way to make a joke. He said ‘No I’m being serious.’”
The lobbyist said she then tried to leave his office as quickly as possible.
Four lobbyists contacted in the reporting of this story said they considered filing formal complaints against Lebsock over the last three years but worried it could negatively impact their careers, the clients they represent, and their personal reputations. In three cases, the lobbyists said they talked to a member of House leadership. The lobbyists declined to go on the record.
“These are deeply disturbing allegations,” said Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, in a statement prepared in reaction to this story. “I believe there should be extremely high standards of conduct for the legislature, and I take any allegations of sexual assault and harassment very seriously. While my formal role in investigating complaints established under Joint Rule 38 prohibits me from making initial judgments about the facts, these numerous allegations would represent a major breach of decorum, and I would expect that Rep. Lebsock would consider the impact of his actions on his colleagues and the public confidence in our institution, and do the right thing and resign. There is no place for those types of actions at the legislature.”
Colorado’s General Assembly has a sexual harassment workplace policy that includes lawmakers as well as third parties such as lobbyists and members of the media. It also covers legislative employees and the staff agencies. Sexual harassment complaints are confidential.
Duran said she plans to work with her colleagues to review the current process to determine whether it’s adequate to address situations of harassment or assault at the legislature, and make any changes needed.
Not the only allegations
Beyond Rep. Steve Lebsock, there are other complaints about a handful of male senators touching women’s lower backs, giving lingering hugs, making uncomfortable and unwanted comments about appearances, massaging necks, telling off-color jokes of a sexual nature and showing pornographic pictures.
Several female lobbyists said they try to avoid being alone with certain senators and go to offices in pairs or ask a male colleague to talk to them instead. None were willing to be named for this story, saying they feared going public would hurt their work at the legislature.
Another said, “It’s a well known fact across the building that people like Rep. Lebsock and a number of Senate Republicans have all behaved in a way that that would never be accepted in any other conventional workplace. It crosses party lines and has been happening for generations.”
Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the Senate and the president, Kevin Grantham, said no-one has come forward to him with concerns about alleged sexual or other misconduct by any member of the Senate.
“This is obviously something we would take very seriously -- any kind of allegations of harassment,” Grantham said.
Culture inside the Capitol needs improvement
Others interviewed for this story talked about a sexualized culture at the State Capitol.
Former Democratic Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst retired in January. She said she dealt with about four instances of sexual misconduct informally but would not confirm who the cases were about.
“I know when I was speaker, we were very cautious and we were very stern if there was even an inkling of something like that going on,” she said.
Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail was elected three years ago. She said the Capitol is the worst place she has ever worked in terms of sexual harassment.
“I’ve experienced everything from a physical interaction that was not appropriate between professionals, to comments on my appearance that went far beyond what would be considered polite compliments," said Donovan, a Democrat. "I’ve experienced retribution for not going along with suggestive behavior.”
After one comment about her clothes Donovan became self-conscious about what she should wear to work: "Would I be sending the wrong message? All of those classic things.”
Donovan has never formally reported any of what she’s experienced.
Another female lobbyist, who has been at the Capitol for decades, said she feels safer as an older woman, but she sees a lot going on, adding that the environment makes it easy for the lines to get blurred. People talk closely in the hallways so they aren’t overheard and the cramped spaces outside the House and Senate chambers make bodily contact practically unavoidable.
“There’s a lot of harmless flirtation and I think both sides want something from one another and they take advantage of that," she said. "It’s a way of gaining entry, but one of the other parties can misread it. It can become unwanted attention.”
Kristen Thomson has been a lobbyist for nearly 20 years. She said she takes precautions.
“If I’m going into a closed door meeting I make sure someone knows I’m there," Thomson said. "I try not to go to meetings alone. I don’t invite hugs or touching.”
Lobbyists said it amounts to career suicide to bring forward a complaint about a lawmaker, especially for a profession that’s built on reputation, relationships and access to key political players. Even though they have experienced harassment the women said they feel the state capitol is still a good workplace, filled with many great people. Other women said they haven’t experienced any harassment first hand.
“I’ve never had a problem at the capitol within the caucus, and lobbyists we treat each other pretty respectfully,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican. “The atmosphere down there, my approach is more collaborative. I don’t have all the power and they don’t either. What we’re trying to do is get things done.”
There are more female lawmakers and lobbyists than ever before and some say that improves the culture.
“We have a lot of amazing strong women, like a lot of great men that have made this a safe space, and because there are so many women and people of color you can see how times are changing in our environment,” said Zoey Dewolf a lobbyist for Colorado Legislative Services, a firm that represents the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Bankers Association among others.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.
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