Former lobbyist Dede de Percin has come forward with new allegations claiming that lobbyist Benjamin Waters made disparaging remarks to her and touched her in an unacceptable way when she worked at the Capitol.
On Thursday, de Percin, who was the head of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative from 2006 to 2013, sent an email to the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate sharing her story and calling for action. She is the third woman to speak publicly about Waters.
“I periodically interacted with or was near Ben for work, political, and social reasons at and around the state Capitol. Often on these occasions, Ben would loudly call me a dyke, lesbo, or other disparaging terms, ensuring that nearby elected officials and professional colleagues heard him. Prior to working at CCHI, I ran the statewide LGBTQ+ anti-violence program, so I was completely out as a member of this community,” she wrote.
Waters, who is also openly gay, has been a registered lobbyist since 2007. Some of his clients include Mile High United Way, Colorado Association of Gifted and Talented, Fostering Colorado, Colorado LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, Native Roots and the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts among others.
De Percin first contacted Colorado Public Radio after she learned about Democratic Sen. Jessie Danielson’s allegation that Waters grabbed her buttocks in 2015. An investigator found the allegation credible. De Percin said she is not close friends with Danielson but occasionally sees her at Democratic events and did fundraise to help Democrats win control of the state Senate. Democratic strategist Audrey Kline also told CPR Waters “belittles people, insults them and calls them names.”
De Percin said a run-in with Waters at the 2012 end-of-session party left her shaken and angry. This annual event is attended by lobbyists, lawmakers, members of the media, the governor and his staff.
“Ben pretended to give me a hug, then reached behind my back and unhooked my bra -- in a public place among professional colleagues and elected officials,” she wrote in her email. “I responded by [grabbing] the front of his shirt, and telling him unequivocally never to touch me again. Immediately afterwards, I disclosed to female colleagues at [the party] what had happened. At least two of the women present said that Ben had also unhooked their bras in public, and that they knew of other women he had done this to as well.”
De Percin said when she confronted him he appeared shocked. “I don't think anybody has actually responded that way before,” she said.
Two lobbyists have told CPR they regularly witnessed Waters unclipping women’s bras just outside of the House chamber in an area where lobbyists gather. One of them said he did it to her roughly once a month between 2009-14, forcing her to retreat to a bathroom or ask a friend to help refasten it. She said he only stopped when he was admonished by someone at the Capitol. She wishes to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation from him and others who still work there.
Waters declined to comment on the latest allegations or the email de Percin sent. “I cannot comment on a request I have not seen,” he said.
De Percin told legislative leaders she tried to avoid him after the incident but the harassment didn’t stop.
“Ben continued his attempts to embarrass me by referring to me as a dyke and bull dyke in public settings, such as at a political event at former [Democratic Minority Leader] Lucia Guzman’s home, and at a reception at the Alliance Center.”
She told CPR he also touched her again in 2013.
“He came up from behind me, at a political fundraiser in somebody's backyard and put his arms around me from behind and I sort of flung them off and just like sort of yelled at him never to touch me again.”
Because she no longer works at the Capitol, de Percin told CPR she doesn’t see Waters much but did see him in March 2019 at the ProgressNow Launch party. He allegedly came up to her and tried to apologize. She didn’t find the effort sincere.
“After I set boundaries and said, ‘I don't want to talk to you,’ he insisted on talking to me anyhow. He said, he spent a lot of time with Sen. Faith Winter in the past year,” de Percin recalls. She remembers he said something along the lines of, “‘I've learned a lot and I've changed and I just want to apologize,’ but he didn't say specifically for what. I was just sort of like, tried to get out of there.”
De Percin also sent her email to Danielson and Winter, the first woman to come forward publicly at the Capitol with sexual harassment allegations against former Rep. Steve Lebsock.
CPR asked legislative leaders for their response.
Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker oversaw the complaint Danielson filed and declined to comment at this time. Becker’s second in command, House Majority leader Alec Garnett called de Percin after reading the letter.
“The moment I found out that she was a constituent [I] reached out and you know, really apologize that she had these experiences in the workplace,” said Garnett. “I think since last year we have made it a priority to try to create a better workplace here at the Capitol and there's a lot more work to be done around that includes creating a better environment for everyone in the building, which includes lobbyists.”
Senate President Leroy Garcia stated that, “No one should feel uncomfortable working in the Capitol and we are absolutely committed to improving the workplace culture. That is why we introduced a joint rule on Saturday and are working on legislation to address these types of issues.”
The state legislature has spent close to $400,000 in dealing with the issue of sexual harassment after five lawmakers faced credible allegations of harassment in 2018. But so far, lawmakers haven’t passed any changes to the workplace harassment policy. The current policy has no mechanism to hold lobbyists and other third parties who work there accountable if they harass someone.
“I don't feel comfortable commenting on the specifics of that particular email at this moment,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. “What I would say is I believe that our workplace harassment policy should include lobbyists and other people who regularly work in this workplace and the Capitol. And we are looking at making sure the policy is amended and that our new policy actually does include them in a clear and prescriptive manner.”
As for de Percin, she hopes coming forward with her letter makes more people comfortable to share their stories.
“It doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is or your gender identity, harassing women is harassing women, being inappropriate with women is being inappropriate with women,” she said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Senate President Leroy Garcia.