Former legislative aides lay out workplace concerns against state Senator

Democratic state Sen. Sonia Jaquez Lewis
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis.

Four former employees of a first-term Democratic state senator have told CPR News she withheld wages, set unreasonably demanding work schedules, and attempted to prevent them from communicating with other people in the Democratic political sphere.

Longmont Democratic Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis’ alleged treatment of her employees has had consequences for her work at the state capitol. Last spring, after a former aide wrote Senate leaders with a list of concerns about what she described as a “toxic” workplace and pressure to “operate in an untruthful manner. ” Jaquez Lewis was barred from using Democratic Senate staff to assist in hiring her aides, a decision first reported by the Denver Post.  

“If there are complaints and they are serious, then we absolutely do take action,” Senate President Steve Fenberg told CPR News. However, he said he’s not allowed to talk about individual cases.  

Jaquez Lewis declined to comment on Fenberg’s decision. In a written statement to CPR News, she said being a state legislator is the most important and hardest job she’s ever done.

In January, Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez removed Jaquez Lewis as chair of the Senate Local Government and Housing Committee. He declined to comment when asked by CPR News to confirm whether it was a response to her alleged treatment of staff. 

Jaquez Lewis still serves on the committee and also sits on the Health and Human Services Committee.

Former aide was asked to change her reasons for resigning

Jaquez Lewis’ trouble with aides has continued past last spring’s letter to Senate leaders.

In late 2023, Jaquez Lewis appeared to use the threat of legal action to try to pressure a different aide into submitting a false resignation letter, according to documents, text messages from Jaquez Lewis, and phone calls between the senator and the aide, as reviewed by CPR News. 

The aide’s original letter of resignation, which they submitted to legislative staff and emailed to the senator, stated they were leaving due to “concerns about the work environment and its impact on my well-being.”

The aide wrote in a separate letter to Senate leaders that Jaquez Lewis had tried to isolate them from colleagues by encouraging the aide not to work in person and instructing the aide not to reach out directly to Senate staff, which resulted in delayed healthcare and benefits. 

CPR News spoke with the former aide who asked not to be identified by name or gender out of concern it could lead to professional retaliation from Jaquez Lewis.

In an interview with CPR News, Jaquez Lewis said she had no comment on the aide’s allegations, however, she did provide a general written statement.

“The Capitol is a very stressful place. When someone is leading the charge on an issue, the dialogue can become amplified. Legislators and staff can disagree in the heat of the moment,” said Jaquez Lewis. 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Colorado State Capitol building, seen from atop the downtown Sheraton hotel. Dec. 29, 2023.

In a text message viewed by CPR News, Jaquez Lewis told the employee that the original resignation letter had been accidentally deleted from her inbox and asked them to resubmit a different version, attributing the resignation to transportation concerns. 

Jaquez Lewis sent the proposed resignation letter in a text to the aide, which CPR News has viewed. It states, in part: “Unfortunately, I have realized that without having a car, coming into the Capitol every day will become too much of a hardship. I did not realize how difficult the commute would be.”

In a phone call, the senator also accused the aide of violating a non-disclosure agreement because they told a Democratic Senate staffer they planned to resign before talking with her. CPR News has listened to a recording of the call.

Messages between the Senator and aide suggest she used the threat of legal action to pressure them to submit the ghostwritten resignation letter.

“... this email is needed to close your file and nothing else will be added to it,” Jaquez Lewis texted the aide. “Once received, I can let my attorney know that no other action is required on the Non-disclosure/ Confidentiality agreement issue. All will be closed. This email is needed Today.”

The aide did not submit the resignation letter written by Jaquez Lewis and said the senator did not pursue the claim that the aide had violated the NDA. Separately, President Fenberg ended up taking the unusual step of signing off on the aide’s final timesheet because Jaquez Lewis failed to do so. 

Jaquez Lewis told CPR News she had no comment on that particular situation, but provided a letter from the office of workplace relations from January that said she has not been the subject of a formal complaint. 

“The Senator also indicated that she wishes for her staff to be happy, healthy, and engaged. She requested that OLWR (Office of Legislative Workplace Relations) work with her and her team to ensure that everyone feels adequately supported,” wrote the office’s director Ben FitzSimons in the letter.

Former aide’s concerns echoed by other past employees

Three other former employees of Jaquez Lewis, two former aides, and a former campaign manager, told CPR News they also experienced a range of problems while working for her, from being pressured to work while sick to, in some cases, being asked to misrepresent aspects of her legislative work. Two of the former employees said Jaquez Lewis did not fully pay them for their work. 

“She rises up by not paying the people below her,” said former campaign manager Lacy McGinty. “I wanted to say something sooner. I wanted to tell the media all about this, but at this point, what did I have to gain, 300 dollars?”

McGinty quit Jaquez Lewis’ 2020 Senate campaign primarily over a disagreement about whether she could take a day off after working several long weeks leading up to the local caucuses. She provided CPR News with documents showing Jaquez Lewis refused to fully pay her final invoice because she felt McGinty had failed to make herself adequately available.

In an interview with CPR News, Jaquez Lewis said she had no comment about McGinty’s allegations or allegations from other aides, but stated, “If I've been the cause of any hurt to anyone, I'm truly sorry for that. It's not who I am and I want staff that I work with to be happy, healthy, and engaged.”

Legislative aides play an integral role at the statehouse. Every lawmaker is allocated money to staff their offices, with some using campaign funds to increase wages or hire additional aides. Their responsibilities range from administrative duties and office management to interacting with constituents and working on policy. In recent years aides have organized to get increased wages and benefits.

Fenberg said in general lawmakers must be held to a high standard in their treatment of staff. “It's our responsibility to treat everyone with respect and to make sure that there's a workplace that we're proud of and that people feel respected in and safe.”

He added that accountability is important too, although the tools for official sanctions are somewhat limited since each lawmaker is individually elected and doesn’t have a traditional boss. 

“Sometimes that accountability isn't something that everyone is going to see, but could be internal and is based on what we think is best to resolve a situation and to correct something,” said Fenberg. He added that when a complaint is found to have merit, “We absolutely take action as swift as possible.”

House Majority Leader Monica Duran told CPR News she removed Jaquez Lewis from a wage theft bill they were both sponsoring this session after she heard Fenberg had had to sign the former aide’s final paycheck.

“Our aides are here, they're doing a job for us, making sure that we can do our job that we are elected to do. And it's extremely important that they're not only valued and respected but that they get paid for the work that they're doing. No questions asked,” said Duran.

Jaquez Lewis disputed Duran’s characterization of the situation and said she was unaware of any staff who were not paid what they were owed.

Jaquez Lewis was elected to the state Senate in 2020 after serving a term in the House. She’s currently running for reelection. 

As a trained pharmacist, she’s one of the only medical professionals currently serving in the state legislature. During her time in the Senate, Jaquez Lewis has worked on reducing health care costs, has helped pass stricter gun laws, and sponsored legislation to preserve access to legal abortion. She’s a member of the legislature’s LGBTQ caucus and the Colorado Democratic Latino caucus.

Denice Walker has worked for Jaquez Lewis for the last six years in various roles, including as an intern this session. Walker said she’s generally worked really well with the other employees of the senator, noting at 72 years old, “I’m older than most of them. I’m more like the grandparent.”

“I’ve seen aides come and go. It’s a high-pressure place to work, but what I’ve been most impressed with is the Senator’s passion and commitment to passing good legislation,” Walker told CPR News. “She’s not afraid to take on hard legislative policy and sometimes that means taking on powerful people and companies.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, addresses abortion rights supporters gathered on the state Capitol steps in Denver on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, after a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court called for overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Use of non-disclosure agreements not common at the Capitol 

Jaquez Lewis’ former legislative aide said they weren’t concerned when they signed the NDA at the start of her employment, which they remembered as being focused on not sharing sensitive legislative information.

But in the call reviewed by CPR News, Jaquez Lewis told the aide the agreement required them to speak with her first about any concerns. She told the aide the NDA was necessary because of situations in the past where people talked to other legislative aides and staff and said they weren’t happy. 

Jaquez Lewis declined to discuss specifics of the situation but did say that NDAs were encouraged when she was first elected into the House.

CPR News has not been able to review the NDA. However, a state law that went into effect on August 2, 2023, bans agreements that prevent government employees from disclosing workplace conditions. The aide said they signed the NDA in September.

“The statute clearly says that the state cannot, as a condition of employment, require an employee to sign an agreement prohibiting them from disclosing factual circumstances regarding their employment to another person,” said Jeff Roberts, head of the non-profit Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. 

President Fenberg said in the last several years he directed Democratic senators not to use NDAs with their staff but does not have the power to ban them. He said he was unaware that Jaquez Lewis was using them. 

“I think there are aspects (of the job) that members and staff are obviously expected to have discretion over. There are some things that are sensitive or confidential,” said Fenberg. But “in the traditional sense of an NDA for a workplace, I don't think those are appropriate.” 

The Political Workers Guild of Colorado, which represents legislative aides at the state capitol said NDAs are rare.

“We hope with the new legislation about NDAs, that offices that do choose to utilize them do so under the full scope of that legislation,” said Hailey McMoore, a former aide, who currently serves on the guild’s leadership team.