The road to change is never easy, and that’s certainly true for the Colorado legislature, which is forging a new path forward in the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment scandals that rocked the General Assembly during the 2017–18 legislative session.
At least 15 people formally accused five lawmakers of sexual misconduct, creating a whirlwind of investigations with strikingly different endings. In March, Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock (Thornton), who was accused of harassment by five women, became the first representative to be expelled from the state legislature since 1915. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner (Sulphur Springs), who was facing three claims of harassment, survived his expulsion vote in April.
- Colorado Lawmakers to Address Sexual Misconduct in the Statehouse
- ‘I Feel Freer.’ Sen. Guzman Talks About Her Decision to Step Down as Minority Leader
- A Look Back at the Tumultuous 2018 Colorado Legislative Session
- Lebsock’s Last Stand: Democratic Rep. Expelled From Legislature
- Sen. Randy Baumgardner Escapes Expulsion, But Sexual Harassment Issues Remain
According to a 235-page report currently under review by the Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee—which was convened to evaluate the General Assembly’s response to these accusations and formalize processes to deal with these issues in the future—that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The report states that nearly half the people working at the Capitol saw or experienced harassment or disrespectful behavior, with lawmakers committing more than 90 percent of the offenses. Yet only 13 percent ever reported it.
While the report’s findings point to a culture where harassment was allowed to occur, just as worrisome was the lack of consistency in how these issues were dealt with—which led to expulsion for one lawmaker, but a lesser punishment for another.
House Majority Leader KC Becker (D-Boulder) took on the investigation against Lebsock in November 2017, after Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran recused herself from the case (she had already called for Lebsock’s resignation). Becker recently shared with 5280 exclusive details about her investigation, which was complex, time-consuming, and at times frustrating, in part because of the lack of precedent.
“The whole thing was new to all of us,” Becker says. “As a legislator, you don’t run for office thinking you’re going to be leading an investigation. You just want to pass legislation.”
Because there was no formal process in place, Becker was forced to chart new territory, including establishing processes for investigating five formal complaints, protecting the confidentiality of victims, responding to claims of retaliation, and dusting off 100-year-old rules for expulsion. All of this was managed on top of Becker’s duties as Majority Leader. Now, she questions whether one individual should have so much sway. “So much of the outcome depended on particular actions that I took, and I don’t think it should have that much variability,” Becker says.
Case in point: As Becker managed the Lebsock investigation, Duran led a separate inquiry into harassment charges against Rep. Paul Rosenthal (D-Denver), while Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Cañon City) investigated allegations against Baumgardner, Jack Tate (R-Centennial), and Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa).
According to Becker, because of confidentiality concerns, there was little communication between her, Duran, and Grantham during the investigations, which limited opportunities to learn from each case—and reduced accountability. “There needs to be a way to maintain confidentiality broadly, but also have more inclusiveness of other leaders during the process or after the process is over,” Becker says. “There’s no benefit of precedent.”
The transient nature of the General Assembly, where House and Senate members are elected every two and four years—and leadership can change hands just as frequently—makes it difficult to learn from past investigations. That was one reason Becker chose to share her story. “There needs to be some institutional memory,” she says.
Becker took careful steps to keep the inquiry on track. A lawyer by profession, she established a written record of all communications, personally responded to every claim and counterclaim filed by Lebsock and his accusers, sought legal advice on how to protect due process, and retained a third-party investigator to examine the allegations. And when she discovered that she and Lebsock were relying on the same team of in-house lawyers for advice, she hired outside counsel. “I had to maintain the integrity of this investigation,” Becker says. “That was my goal the whole time.”
As the investigation proceeded, Becker uncovered various red flags. For one, the harassment complaints were immediately shared with Lebsock before investigators could interview him. The advance knowledge enabled Lebsock to take a lie-detector test with narrowly defined questions—and he shared those results with the press before meeting with the investigator. This access also opened the door for retaliation against his accusers. Despite a written notice from Becker in December warning that the “release could be construed as retaliation under the Workplace Harassment Policy,” Lebsock distributed a 28-page dossier to every member of the House outlining his defense that included private details of victims’ sex lives.
“The accused should at some point have access to the complaint, but because it was given out so early in the process it actually interfered with the investigation,” Becker says.
On February 27, three months after taking over the investigation, Becker placed a legal opinion on every representative’s desk, recommending a vote on expulsion, which requires a two-thirds majority vote by the 65 House members. Her arguments included four main points: a broad pattern of behavior, evidence of retaliation, the State Constitution’s provision for legislators to police their own, and the ideal that members should hold themselves to a higher standard than the private sector in responding to workplace violations.
But perhaps the most important decision that Becker made was simply deciding to hold the vote, with no guarantee that it would pass. “It was important to let folks know that we are going to stand up for them, that sexual harassment isn’t something we are going to tolerate, and that we all have to go on record,” she says. Ultimately, Lebsock was expelled by a 52–9 vote, including 36 Democrats and 16 Republicans.
Looking back, Becker says waiting for results of all five investigations before recommending action was critical. Her decision to focus on Lebsock’s pattern of behavior directly contrasted that of the Senate, where leaders held a failed vote in April to expel Baumgardner based on a single complaint—with the results of two more investigations still to be reviewed. “It reminds folks that there’s not one guaranteed outcome, and it is all very dependent on personal values, leadership styles, and politics,” Becker says. (Senate President Grantham declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Becker believes the leadership of women in the House, driven by their lived experiences, also impacted the investigation. According to Pew Research, attitudes on how to handle harassment vary among genders and political affiliations. For example, some 66 percent of Democratic women say that men getting away with sexual harassment and assault is a major problem, compared with 28 percent of Republican men.
“A lot more women personally know what it’s like to be discounted, valued for the wrong things, and noticed for the wrong things,” she says.
That was certainly the case in the Colorado legislature, where female elected officials saw and experienced sexual harassment “significantly more” than other respondents, according to the workplace report. During the past session Rep. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) and Rep. Susan Lontine (D-Denver) both filed harassment complaints.
While Becker isn’t on the Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee—which includes Duran, Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik (R-Thornton), Sen. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City), Rep. Kim Ransom (R-Parker), and Winter—she says she’s shared her perspectives with some of the members, including the need for broader cultural change. She points out that the unique nature of the legislative workplace—including the fact that legislators can’t be fired, have more access to the press, and are in the public eye—makes it difficult to eradicate harassment. “The currency in the Capitol is power,” she says. “And harassment is certainly about power.”
Becker hopes the final workplace policy—the committee will make its final recommendations after its last meeting on October 11—will not only address inappropriate behavior, but also the value of all people in the legislative workplace. “I am here because I have something to say and I have something to do and I have a perspective that I’m bringing,” Becker says. “I want to be treated with respect.”