Ethics complaint against state Sen. Faith Winter will proceed

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter at the Capitol, March 1, 2023.

A bipartisan state Senate ethics committee voted unanimously on Thursday to move forward with an ethics complaint against Democratic Sen. Faith Winter, stemming from her conduct at a public meeting in the city of Northglenn.

The five member committee found there is probable cause she may have violated Senate ethics rules by appearing to be intoxicated during her official duties. The panel will need to hold another meeting to make a final determination.

“I just want to say that this is hard. This sucks,” said Democratic Senator Julie Gonzales of Denver, the committee’s chair. “This entire situation has just been really challenging because when she's at her best, Senator Winter is phenomenal in upholding trust and integrity.”  

In early April, the day after the public meeting in Northglenn, Winter disclosed that she has an alcohol use disorder. In her announcement she apologized for anyone affected by her actions and stepped down as the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

A month later, the city of Northglenn voted to file an ethics complaint to the Colorado legislature alleging Winter’s behavior violated the rules of legislative conduct. The city council said Winter failed to “uphold her office with integrity.”

A relevant section of the rules reads, “A member shall respect and comply with the law and shall perform his or her legislative duties at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the Senate and of the General Assembly.”

The complaint, which was written by Northglenn Mayor Meredith Leighty, alleges that at times during the meeting Winter appeared “disinterested, annoyed, and combative, to the point where others had to intervene to cool tensions. In one notable example, she simply refused to answer one of my direct questions.”

Winter joined Thursday’s ethics hearing remotely and kept her video turned off.  

In an earlier apology to the city of Northglenn, Winter said, “I know the way I showed up at the community meeting was inappropriate and hard for those in attendance. That night led me to seek treatment for substance abuse disorder, which was difficult, especially with the eyes of the world watching, but I’m glad I did.”

Thursday’s vote was not a final decision and at least two Senators expressed skepticism that Winter truly violated Senate ethics rules. Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs said he was judging her comments that night in the context of a contentious community meeting, one that he felt itself breached the Senate’s standards for acceptable decorum. 

Up to 400 people came out that evening to discuss a residential mental health facility in the community that could potentially end up housing some sex offenders, under a law sponsored by Winter. 

Gardner said from his observation, some members of the public appeared to heckle Winter. He said nothing in her responses was especially combative. 

“It might've been defensive and it might not have been handled in as politically adept fashion as one would hope, but I'll be honest, I'm struggling to find where the responses to the public were so lacking in respect in the context of the way the meeting was being conducted,” said Gardner. 

He said he’s taking a narrow focus on the complaint and won’t be swayed by the public’s opinion, because there can be a lot of reasons people are upset with a legislator.  

“I'm struggling with this, I think there is an admission on Senator Winter's part that her conduct was not what she would've liked. I'm trying to judge whether her state — I hesitate to say even intoxication — her state of consumption and her conduct in the meeting fell so far short of ideal that I would find it to be a violation.”  

However, Gardner did vote that there was enough probable cause to continue the investigation, saying he found the most persuasive evidence to actually be Winter's own evaluation of her conduct that night.

Senate President Pro Tem James Coleman of Denver also said he found probable cause based on Winter’s apology, but added that neither the information in the complaint nor his own experiences with her suggested that she had failed to do her job as a lawmaker. He also said it showed integrity to publicly apologize and take accountability for her actions, saying it’s a question of honesty. 

Coleman added that in his eight years in the legislature he’s seen Winter make the case for her positions, run policies, pass bills and see them implemented.

“And I've also seen others who quite frankly have come here and acted a fool,” Coleman concluded.

Sen. Gonzales said she was persuaded to continue the investigation in part because the entire Northglenn city council supported the complaint.

The broad scope of concern, Gonzales said, clarified her thoughts. "When we receive at the meeting itself, and in the aftermath of the meeting, received a number of emails, messages, public comment from Coloradans, that to me supports the determination in my mind that there is probable cause."

Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts noted the seriousness of the allegations. 

“Her performance at the meeting is being called into question, not because of the answers she gave, but because of the state in which she arrived at the meeting, which is not something that I think any constituent of Colorado in any district would hope their public officials would be in,” he said. 

But he added he still needs more information to determine whether Winter violated Senate ethics rules.  

“I’m looking at whether Senator Winter’s self admission of some level of impairment at the meeting caused her to behave differently than a reasonable Senator would in that same situation,” said Roberts.  

Winter has previously asked the city of Northglenn for empathy and said numerous constituents have reached out to her to share stories about the struggles they and their loved ones have had with addiction. 

“If my pain and the stigma I faced publicly even helped one person seek treatment and find peace, then I can find peace myself,” Winter said.

Winter’s staff said she declined CPR’s request for comment on Thursday. After the hearing, her fiance, former Democratic state Rep. Matt Gray, who also struggled with alcohol addiction while in the legislature, took to social media in her defense, criticizing people for preaching compassion in front of microphones but showing none personally. 

“I hope that all 100 legislators in Colorado realize that as of today you are one mean-spirited complaint from people mad at you (away from) buying a taxpayer funded inquisition. Get your affairs in order folks,” he tweeted.

At this point, if she wants it, Winter could request an evidentiary hearing, which would give the ethics committee more significant investigative powers, including the ability to issue subpoenas. If she doesn't ask for that, the committee will have to decide based on the evidence already submitted.

If the committee concludes she did violate the Senate’s ethics rules, there’s a wide range of possible sanctions, such being stripped of committee assignments or a censure recommendation. Regardless of the outcome, the committee members said it was a weighty process.

“I do it carrying the very heavy mantle on behalf of the institution and my friend and colleague,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen. 

Winter was first elected to the state House in 2014. Four years later, she ran for Senate and flipped a Republican-held seat. She’s now on her second, and final Senate term, which runs through 2027. She’s currently the Senate Assistant Majority Leader.