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A pattern of silence over sexual harassment at the Colorado Capitol

April 5, 2018 Updated: April 6, 2018 at 10:48 am
photo - Colorado state capitol (AP file photo)
Colorado state capitol (AP file photo) 

DENVER - About 28 percent of the people who work at the Colorado Capitol have witnessed workplace harassment, but only about 13 percent reported it. Of those, 72 percent were unhappy with the outcome, according to a workplace culture report made public Thursday morning.

Seventy percent of female legislators reported seeing behavior they considered sexual harassment, according to the report based on hundreds of survey responses and interviews in response to sexual harassment allegations against six male legislators.

Lobbyists were the targets of harassment in almost 59 percent of the instances cited to investigators, followed by aides and interns, then staff and lawmakers themselves, according to the 235-page independent review by the Investigations Law Group in Denver.

In 90 percent of the cases cited to interviewers, an elected official was the alleged harasser, and in 43 percent of the cases, it was a lobbyist.

Only 45 percent of those surveyed thought the existing workplace harassment policy is taken seriously.

The report concluded that while most people feel safe and secure, and feel legislative leadership sets good examples, there is work to be done to improve the culture around sexual harassment.

"Obviously there are concerns and behavior patterns occurring here, "said Liz Rita, the founder and lead investigator of Investigations Law Group. "We suggest power dynamics have something to do with it."

She said the finding that female legislators reported witnessing or enduring the misbehavior at more than twice the rate of the rest of the survey sample suggests the "power dynamics of gender are at play here," as well.

"It's safe to say that no workplace in America would consider these numbers an indicator that its culture around harassment is healthy or that its system is working to detect, to deter and to deal with harassment," Rita said.

Lawmakers had said they hoped to have a new policy in place by the end of the legislative session on May 9, but after reviewing the report Thursday morning, said they have a lot of work to do.

The report calls for the creation of an office or agency to deal with workplace culture, as well as creating an informal process to remedy issues less formally before they rise to the legal definition of harassment. The report also recommends allowing anonymous complaints.

Fear of retaliation is a leading reason complaints aren't lodged, Rita said.

The report also suggests a code of conduct for legislators, as well as one for lobbyists and others.

Legislative leaders said they could hold meetings throughout the summer to craft a more thoughtful and effective policy.

"I think changing our policy is critical, and I don't want to rush it," said House Majority Leader KC Becker, R-Boulder.

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, D-Parker, said, "It's been enlightening and empowering to see this report, what our culture actually looks like."

The full report can be read by clicking here.

Like much of America, the Colorado statehouse has been roiled by the #MeToo movement. Six male legislators have been accused of misbehavior. Two legislators have faced expulsion hearings.

Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton switched from Democrat to Republican shortly before he was voted out of the House 52-9 on March 2. He was accused by five women in 11 cases.

Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, survived a hearing Monday night during which the chamber voted 17-17, seven votes short of the two-thirds needed to remove him. Baumgardner was accused of touching the buttocks of a Democratic aide in 2016, which he denies.

Legislative leaders dismissed complaints against Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, and Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial. House leadership said the accusations against Rosenthal allegedly occurred before he was a member of the legislature, and two weeks ago the Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, said that the accusations against Tate, even if true, would not constitute a violation of workplace policies.

Thursday morning, as the report was released, the conservative group Compass Colorado released emails it obtained that suggest Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan's use of the women's restroom near the Senate was more prevalent than he has suggested to reporters.

The emails suggest that Capitol staff sought to restrict his electronic keycard from accessing the door.

Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, has told reporters it was a one-time accident because the restroom doors, at the time, were not marked.

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, R-Thornton, filed a sexual harassment complaint against Kagan. Humenik, who voted against Baumgardner's expulsion Monday night, is running against Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, for re-election this year. Winter was one of the five women who accused Lebsock.

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, was accused by Rep. Susan Lontine of touching her on the buttocks in 2015 when she hugged him on the House floor and of telling a crude joke last October.

Crowder said he didn't remember intentionally touching Lontine.

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