Consultant Says Colorado Capitol Has Unhealthy Culture

Originally published on June 30, 2018 11:07 am

A more than 200-page report from the Denver-based Investigations Law Group reaffirms that there are systemic cultural and sexual harassment problems at the Colorado state Capitol.

Our reporting first uncovered the problems in November, which has led to multiple allegations and investigations into a handful of lawmakers and the historic expulsion of former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock.  

Consultants interviewed more than 500 people at the Capitol. While almost everyone feels safe and comfortable, their results show 30 percent of people either saw or experienced harassment and very few reported it.

“It’s safe to say that no workplace in America would consider these numbers as an indicator that its culture around harassment is healthy, or that its system is working to detect, to deter and to deal with harassment,” said lead investigator Liz Rita.

According to the report another 50 percent of people have observed sexist behavior and/or reported episodes of seriously disrespectful behavior.

“It clearly showed that this is happening beyond just a couple of incidents and I think that’s really important to acknowledge,” said Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, the first person at the Capitol to come forward publicly alleging harassment.

The findings were presented to leaders in both parties Thursday. One major recommendation is to create an Office of Workplace Culture, bringing in an ombudsman, hiring an Equal Opportunity Employment Officer and workplace culture specialist. Lawmakers agreed to hire an HR manager who has already begun working at the Capitol. The report also suggests removing legislative leaders from directly handling complaints, a concern Winter and many others have expressed.

“I thought it was really good that they had a lot of recommendations to de-politicize the process. We should do everything we can to de-politicize complaints and coming forward,” said Winter.

The list of recommendations and length of the report has legislative leaders thinking it may require work over the summer to figure out next steps.

“It has been enlightening, empowering to see the results, what does our culture actually look like?” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker.

He suggested the idea of working in groups over the interim to look at the issue.

“To have us decide how to put all this structure in place, a structural change in place, that’s a lot of hours, a lot of work and it needs to be done,” said Holbert. “I also observe that because of term limits, the six of us who are sitting here at least two of us won’t be sitting here next January.”

House Majority leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, had previously stated that her No. 1 goal was to have a new policy in place by May 9 when the legislature adjourns.  But after reading the report, which legislative leaders received Monday, she said that’s not the case anymore.

“I don’t want to jump to any policy change that just creates a whole new set of problems,” said Becker. “I want to be really thoughtful and I want to get the engagement of other stakeholders, which is other lawmakers, victim advocates, victims themselves.”

The report advises that an outside panel should recommend consequences for lawmakers investigated for misconduct. In some cases, information would be released to the public. Right now, it’s all confidential unless an accuser comes forward. One voter from Mancos in southwestern Colorado said releasing credible information is a no brainer.

“We have elected these people to do our bidding at the state capitol,” said unaffiliated voter Margaret Kirk. “Everyone knows issues of sexual harassment and assault are not sexual issues, they’re issues of power, control and entitlement. I don’t want my representative misusing power.”

Legislative leaders plan to meet in two weeks to further discuss the report.

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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