Sexual Harassment Debate At Colorado’s Capitol Splits Along Partisan Lines
As Democrats in the House push ahead with their effort to expel one of their members over sexual harassment, Republicans in both chambers are raising objections to the Capitol's entire processes for assessing and acting on such claims.
In the House, the drama centers on Rep. Steve Lebsock. The Thornton Democrat could be the first state lawmaker expelled in a century, after an independent investigation concluded that 11 sexual harassment allegations from five different women were all credible.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader KC Becker introduced a resolution to expel Lebsock, with the vote scheduled for Friday. It will take two-thirds the House’s members to pass the measure, which means at least eight Republicans would need to join Democrats. But it appears many GOP lawmakers will balk at taking that historic step.
Calls For A Committee
On Thursday morning, Republican Rep. Yuellin Willett tried unsuccessfully to set the House on different course, by establishing an ethics committee to investigate Lebsock's conduct. The bipartisan panel would have had the power to demand documents and subpoena witnesses.
Willett said that's how lawmakers proceeded before the last expulsion.
"Why in the world are we not doing that process they did in 1915? Where's our committee?" he asked during a tense session on the committee floor.
The move would have likely delayed any vote to expel Lebsock.
Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran blocked the request for a committee. A Republican attempt to over-rule that decision failed on a party-line vote.
Consideration of Expulsion
Shortly after that confrontation on the floor, House members held a rare joint caucus to consider the merits of Lebsock's case. Many raised questions about what standard would be needed to decide expulsion.
Democratic Rep. Matt Gray, a practicing lawyer who has long supported expulsion, told lawmakers the allegations against Lebsock did not constitute a crime and therefore did not require due process protections.
"Our job is to figure out what the truth is and act in a way that citizens expect to uphold the dignity of this body," said Gray.
Lebsock was allowed to ask questions of witnesses during the caucus. He focused most of his attention on Michele Sturgell -- the investigator with Employers Council who conducted the investigation into his conduct.
Lebsock questioned Sturgell's own conduct during the investigation. He claimed that at one point, he expressed his own emotional distress about the whole investigative process to Sturgell, and Sturgell brushed off the complaints saying "You are not going to die." He also said he has a recording of the interaction.
He also pressed Sturgell on whether she believed his conduct amounted to assault.
"Whether something qualifies as harassment or assault is outside my scope. I do not make legal conclusions. I make factual conclusions" she responded.
Sturgell’s report concluded that the complaints against Lebsock were credible, and that his denials and contentions that the entire situation is politically motivated, were not.
While House members were considering Lebsock’s fate, Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham held a press conference to call for criminal investigations into harassment complaints at the legislature.
"If true, some of these allegations rise to the level of assault. And that does not belong in the political atmosphere of the State Capitol building. It belongs in a place of law," said Grantham.
A press release from Senate Republicans says they would move to expel any member found guilty of criminal sexual misconduct.
A spokesman for Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said victims would have to file charges to trigger a criminal investigation, adding that sexual harassment does not necessarily rise to the point of criminal activity.
Grantham did not speak to specific allegations of sexual harassment, but he has three in his own caucus to choose from. Republican state Sens. Larry Crowder, Randy Baumgardner, and Jack Tate all face formal complaints.
An investigation into Baumgardner found he likely groped a former aide in 2016. Grantham declined to punish him for that incident, citing inaccuracies, biases and conflicts of interest with the investigation. That has led Senate Democrats to introduce their own resolution to expel Baumgardner.
Last month, Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine revealed she’d filed a complaint against Crowder for touching her inappropriately during a joint resolution on the House floor and making inappropriately sexual comments. Lontine said she decided to go public after feeling that her substantiated complaint was not taken seriously enough by Senate Republicans.
KUNC radio has reported that investigators found Senator Tate “more likely than not” leered at former intern and made inappropriate comments about her clothes.
In a statement, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman said Grantham still had a duty to police harassment.
"The legislature’s decision to take disciplinary action and whether or not allegations merit a criminal investigation are separate questions," she wrote. "To suggest otherwise is an attempt to delay and distract from what should be a straightforward process informed by the findings of experienced, objective workplace investigators."
Editor's note: CPR is a client of the Employer’s Council.
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