Emails Warn Workers At Colorado Capitol Not To Speak To Press

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Originally published on June 30, 2018 11:07 am

More than 100 Senate staff, aides and interns have been warned against speaking to journalists about workplace issues, including sexual harassment, and the trainings aimed at preventing it.

At issue are two emails obtained from Senate sources that say it is a violation of the chamber's policies for workers to grant interviews to reporters. A third email, sent directly to us by the top Senate administrator, asked us to tell members of other news organizations not to approach aides and interns for interviews, but rather to speak with communications secretaries. We didn't act on that request because it's not our role to direct the reporting of other news organizations. 

The emails have raised the issue of freedom of speech for some at the Capitol at a time when people are speaking out against sexual harassment in hopes of improving workplace culture.

Senate Secretary Effie Ameen, the chamber's nonpartisan administrator, sent the first email last month to 103 aides and interns. The email came a time when four legislators -- including three senators -- faced independent investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. Harassment trainings were also being conducted and journalists sought interviews with aides and interns about the trainings.

“I know the press has been requesting interviews from aides and possibly other staff,” Ameen wrote on Feb. 2, 2018. “If you could please remind aides of our policy in the aide handbook.”

She sent the email to the coordinators for the Republican and Democratic aides and interns.

In it, Ameen cited the Senate employee handbook that staff must read and sign. Violations of the policies can be grounds for disciplinary action including termination.

“Except for the media staff and those employees designated by the President or the Minority Leader to represent the Senate to the media, no Senate employee, including aides, interns and volunteers may grant interviews to the press.”

It adds that personal opinions can be construed as an official position of the Senate. 

Ameen sent a second email on March 5, 2018, to about 20 Senate staffers who work in a non-partisan fashion as administrators to legislators, noting that there may be ongoing investigations into workplace harassment complaints in the Senate. 

“Please also be aware that we have a policy in the Senate employee handbook that addresses staff giving interviews to the press," Ameen wrote. "The policy states that Senate employees may not grant interviews to the press. Please keep this and confidentiality considerations in mind to protect the integrity of any possible ongoing investigation.”

Among several complaints is one filed by a male staff member who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. In it, he alleges Sen. Randy Baumgardner R- Hot Sulphur Springs, created a hostile and offensive work environment by repeatedly giving a female staffer unwanted attention throughout the 2016 legislative session. Baumgardner, who is also the subject of two other complaints -- denies the allegations against him.

As part of the complaint filing process, the male staffer's identity is known to Ameen, the contact person for the complaint but it is kept confidential, along with the complaint. The staffer came forward to us in hopes his story would prompt further conversation about workplace harassment.

After the story ran, the staffer said Ameen told him not to speak to the press again. 

“My manager [Ameen] then told me staff is not allowed to speak to the media,” the staffer said, adding that Ameen also said Sen. President Kevin Grantham was not happy with the news story.   

When we asked Grantham about the male staffer this week, Grantham responded: “As staff members they should understand that confidentiality is important and blowing something up via the media is not what I would expect from a senator or from staff.”

Under the General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy complaints are not public documents and the results of investigations are confidential, an accuser -- and the accused -- are allowed to go public with their allegations and findings.

Still, Grantham, who ultimately receives the results of complaint investigations and decides what action should be taken, underscored his view that people should speak out as a last resort. 

“I think someone who is making a complaint should make every effort to avail themselves of the process, including confidentiality,” Grantham said. “But at some point, and I don’t know that magic point in time, there has to be a legitimate means to find another avenue, but until whatever that moment is, they do have something binding them to a certain process.”

Grantham added that he'd be OK with interns and aides being interviewed about training.

Other Views On Speaking Out

A leading First Amendment attorney said that in the past, courts have upheld governmental restrictions on the speech of certain government employees. For instance, employees in the judicial branch of state government are prohibited from publicly discussing matters before the courts. But he said there needs to be a bright line of what is and isn’t acceptable.

“To be making up a set of rules about when they do have First Amendment rights is itself a constitutional problem,” said Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Ballard Spahr, who represents the Colorado Press and Broadcaster’s Associations. “There has to be clear limits that a reasonable person can understand, a line that can’t be crossed.”

Zansberg, who has been an advisor to us on previous sexual harassment stories, read the Senate’s press policy and said it appears to narrowly restrict staff from speaking officially on behalf of the Senate. He called Ameen’s emails an attempt to interfere with the rights of public employees to speak to others or the press about the condition of their employment. “I think the clear intent on circulating the policy in the wake of members of the press contacting them about the ongoing trainings about workplace harassment was to chill the speech of the employees of the Senate in an improper way.”

Former state Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell, who worked under four Senate presidents from both parties, said she does not interpret the policy in the employee handbook as a blanket ban. The policy, she feels, is intended to prevent staff from talking officially about work that’s in progress, such as behind the scenes policy negotiations and conversations and opinions about bills moving through the legislature.

“If an employee is talking about sexual or work harassment and they’re going to the press, that employee is not representing the Senate, they are expressing their own opinions and telling their own personal story about a situation they were directly involved in,” Markwell said. “Any employee should be able to talk freely about work conditions, without fear of retribution.”

Views Around The Capitol

The House also has a policy restricting aides, interns, and staff from speaking to the media, but workers said it hasn’t been brought up in recent trainings or circulated to them.

“If they want to talk about workplace harassment and their personal experience with it, I’m not going to tell them not to do that,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker.

The House recently voted overwhelmingly to expel one of their own, Steve Lebsock, after an investigation found allegations of sexual harassment against him credible and claims that he retaliated against his accusers. Lebsock's actions became widely known after Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, spoke to the media.

Lawmakers interviewed for this story said they want people to feel comfortable speaking out.

“They have to have the ability when they see something wrong or unethical to tell that story,” said Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton. He did not vote to expel Lebsock because he said the punishment was too extreme. But he said he supports the idea of anyone at the Capitol exercising their freedom of speech.

“A blanket rule that says you can’t go talk the media is basically un-American," Everett said. "That’s not what we do in this country.”

He added that the press plays an important role in culture change at the Capitol because some aides and staffers may feel uncomfortable trusting complaints with partisan leaders.

In the House, Democrats have control; in the Senate, Republicans have control.

Sen. Steve Fenberg, D- Boulder, said the Capitol must facilitate an environment where people feel safe and respected and able to come forward, including going to the media.

“I would hope that no policies or directives are happening as a way to chill people’s rights or make them less comfortable speaking out about their experiences,” Fenberg said. “I think that should be encouraged and frankly is the only way we can change culture is if people are open and honest and talk about it.”

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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