Incoming Senate President Garcia Dismisses The Nonpartisan Senate Secretary

<p>(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)</p>
<p>The Colorado Senate chambers on the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.</p>
Photo: Capitol Jan 11 2017 17 | Colorado Senate chambers
The Colorado Senate chambers on the opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

The nonpartisan administrative head of the Colorado Senate who played a central role in processing sexual harassment complaints last legislative session was recently fired. Incoming Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia let Secretary Effie Ameen go just before Thanksgiving.

Garcia declined to comment on the reason for his decision, but last legislative session many Democrats were unhappy with how Ameen handled the sexual harassment complaints that dominated proceedings. She was the point person for sexual harassment complaints filed against state senators by aides, interns, senate staff, and other third parties. Some also felt she didn’t enforce senate rules objectively, favoring Republicans.

Others defended her work and said firing her was unjust and even illegal.

The Senate Secretary is the parliamentarian: They hire staff, manage budgets, keep the records, settle legislative floor disputes and maintain order in the chamber. It’s a nonpartisan position. Ameen was brought in under Republican Bill Cadman in 2015 and stayed on under a new Republican leader.

“I don’t think she was ever nonpartisan, it just didn’t seem that way with how things were handled by her,” said former legislative intern Megan Creeden, who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner.

The complaint was investigated and found credible, but Creeden questions why it sat on Ameen’s desk and was not released in time for a Senate vote on whether to expel Baumgardner from office. The report was concluded but held as the investigator waited to give Baumgardner more time to respond. By the time it was released, it was too late in the session for Democrats to take formal action on the complaint.

“She definitely held onto information and documents that weren’t released in a timely manner,” Creeden said. “In the end, I didn’t feel that she was an ally I could trust to handle the situation.”

The former Senate Secretary also faced bipartisan backlash for warning more than 100 Senate staff, aides and interns against speaking to journalists about workplace issues, including sexual harassment and trainings aimed at preventing it. Yet Creeden doesn’t think Ameen is entirely to blame. She faults a state policy that put Ameen in a Human Resources position without the proper training.

Ameen did not return a request to comment for this article. Outgoing Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham said her termination was unjust.

“Setting aside the audacity to fire a nonpartisan Senate staff member the day before Thanksgiving, the Secretary of the Senate is a staff member who is elected by the 35 members of the Colorado State Senate, and as such, cannot be unilaterally removed by any one member of the body,” Grantham said in a statement.

“I have demanded that Effie Ameen be reinstated, as per law, as she is still the elected Secretary of the Colorado State Senate.”

A state legal opinion backs up Grantham’s assertion and noted it is up to the full senate to take a vote on whether she should stay or go. Democrats said they have the votes to oust her.

While it’s not unheard of for nonpartisan staff to be replaced, it’s uncommon. The last time it happened was in 2010 when then-Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat, fired Senate Secretary Karen Goldman after working with her for one session. Cindi Markwell replaced Goldman and held the position for four years under Democratic and Republican leaders. Markwell retired in 2015, but will be back to take over for the 2019 session that starts in January. In the House, the parliamentarian has been in her role for 14 years, under both Republican and Democratic majorities.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify the Democrat's attempts to hold an expulsion vote on Sen. Baumgardner and the eventual release of the investigation into him.