The state Senate unanimously passed changes Thursday to how the Colorado Capitol deals with workplace harassment complaints. The new rule still needs to clear the House on the final day of the legislative session.
The policy adds mandatory harassment training for legislators and Capitol staff. Legislative leaders would no longer oversee complaints. Instead, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers would handle the proceedings and hire an outside investigator.
It also creates a way to hold lobbyists accountable if they violate the legislature’s workplace harassment policy, an issue that crept up in the 2019 session. The executive findings of a credible complaint against a lobbyist would be forwarded to the Independent Ethics Commission.
“I am confident what we have is a more transparent and easier process,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert said.
He and Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia are the main sponsors of the resolution. However, the parties disagree on how much information the Senate’s newly created workplace harassment committee should receive.
Democratic Senator Faith Winter of Westminster introduced an amendment to prevent the committee from learning the identity of an accuser who files a formal complaint.
“It does not change the facts,” Winter said. “And not maintaining confidentiality creates a chilling effect to come forward. Having committees of powerful lawmakers know who you are is a step backward.”
Other female Senators who have filed formal complaints or spoke out about harassment under the gold dome said they wouldn’t vote for the rule change without those protections for accusers.
Lawmakers are “literally some of the most powerful people in the state,” said Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail, so it’s not realistic to expect, legislative aides, interns, lobbyists and others to come forward publicly to them. Donovan also questioned whether lawmakers could keep an accuser’s name confidential.
“How many of you have had your vote counts leaked? How many of you have had the lobby tell you your vote before you told a colleague? Now let’s take those examples and apply that to how this building works, ‘that this building has no secrets.’ Now apply that to someone who has been sexually harassed and think how we could provide them confidence in coming forward.”
Republicans objected to the Democratic change. Holbert suggested confidentiality be an option in sensitive cases, not an automatic requirement. Others said allowing confidentiality could negatively impact the overall findings and how the legislative committee makes its recommendation.
“I don’t take confidentiality lightly. It is a difficult call,” said Republican Sen. Bob Gardner. “But I know of no other fact finding process where the fact finders don’t know the identity of both the complainant and respondent.”
Senate Democrats voted that the legislature’s HR contact, an outside investigator and the accused individual should be the only ones who would know the accuser’s name. However, if the accused leaks the name it would be considered retaliatory — which could lead to greater consequences for violating the legislature’s workplace harassment policy.
Winter’s amendment passed on a party-line vote and didn’t derail overall support for the rule change. In the House, the resolution will need a two-thirds vote to pass.
A bipartisan bill to release an annual statistical report on the number of complaints and their resolution has passed both chambers unanimously. It would also release information on credible complaints against lawmakers, including the elected official’s name, unless two-thirds of the workplace committee members vote not to.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the proposed process for dealing with complaints made against lobbyists at the Capitol.