Sexual Harassment Common but Largely Unreported at Capitol

Sexual Harassment Common but Largely Unreported at Capitol
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More than two months have passed since legislative leaders asked an outside group to dig into the open secret at the Capitol of widespread misconduct in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual harassment against House and Senate members, one of whom was expelled this year.

At 8 a.m. today, top Republican and Democratic party leaders on the six-member Executive Committee of the Legislative Council were presented with a 235-page report from the Investigations Law Group detailing the results of its deep dive into the workplace culture of the Capitol and its recommendations for shifting what seems to be a toxic environment. The report compiled information from eighty interviews and 528 survey respondents, which included elected officials, lobbyists, Capitol staff, aides and interns, members of the press, students and volunteers.

According to the report, sexual harassment, harassing behavior and sexist commentary are common, and there are no deterrents in place to curb them. One-third of female respondents said they have seen or experienced what they believe to be sexual harassment in the legislative workplace. Digging down even further into the data, female elected officials were the most likely of anyone at the Capitol to have seen or experienced harassing behavior, sexual harassment or sexist behavior. One example of sexist behavior detailed in the report was a male senator who called a female colleague "eye candy" in a committee room while talking into a microphone.

Even with such widespread awareness about ongoing sexual-harassment issues at the Capitol, victims have largely remained silent, with only 13 percent of respondents having reported workplace harassment. Most victims reportedly don't come forward out of fear of retaliation or because they believe their complaints won't be taken seriously.

"I think if leadership is removed too much we are held accountable for behavior and may not even be aware of it, and we in leadership are the only ones who can take steps."

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"When you look at those findings, what that suggests is you have a significant proportion of your workplace who has seen or is experiencing inappropriate behavior, [and] of those a very small percentage feels comfortable bringing that forward," says Elizabeth Rita, CEO and senior investigator at Investigations Law Group. "It's safe to say that no workplace in America would consider these numbers as an indicator that its culture around harassment is healthy or that its systems are working to detect, to deter and to deal with harassment."

Sexual harassment wasn't the only kind of behavior the firm investigated; harassing behavior based on race, religion, sexual orientation, age, color, disability and more were studied. Second to sex-based harassment as the most prevalent form of such abuse at the Capitol was sexual-orientation-based harassment, with 45.9 percent of respondents reported to have witnessed or experienced it.

House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat who worked closely on the public sexual-harassment allegations against ousted Democratic representative Steve Lebsock, was the first to say that although her top priority this session has been to solidify revamped harassment policies by May 9, she doesn't think that's a feasible goal. Instead, she hopes the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council will take time for an in-depth review, convene summer workshops and use the report as a bouncing-off point to create custom-tailored policies for a complex workplace like the legislature.

"I think if leadership is removed too much, we are held accountable for behavior and may not even be aware of it, and we in leadership are the only ones who can take steps. An ombudsman, a [human resources] director, outside experts can't just sort of deal with the sort of intermediate of what happens in the meantime. And if we aren't informed about some things going on, that's a problem. It can affect bill assignments, committee assignments and all sorts of things, so that's something we need to work out a little bit more," Becker says, adding that a process should be in place to hand down information to new party leaders, "because you can be held accountable for behavior that came before you that you didn't know about."

No decision has been made by the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council as to how it will proceed with the report. An executive session of the committee will meet later this month, which, some members speculated, could result in a contract extension for Investigations Law Group so that it can work through the summer in tandem with the workshops.

"This is going to be a conversation that will be ongoing for weeks to come," said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, who chairs the committee.

Investigations Law Group made several recommendations to help eradicate sexual harassment at the Capitol during a two-hour presentation Thursday morning. The most obvious recommendation was for legislators to create a separate human-resources agency, which the report dubbed the Office of Legislative Culture, and staff it with four people. Those recommended positions are a human resources director, an Equal Employment Opportunity specialist, a workplace-culture specialist and a confidential workplace ombudsman. The General Assembly already hired Ben FitzSimons earlier this year as its human resources director in light of the multiple complaints of sexual harassment.

Elected officials are at the top of the list of harassers at the Capitol, according to the report. This poses a problem, because the General Assembly doesn't have formal disciplinary procedures to handle complaints against legislators.

When victims of sexual harassment have complaints, they can currently go to one of sixteen people charged with fielding those complaints at the Capitol, including party leaders in either chamber. Party leaders have to be informed if a complaint is against a sitting member of the House or Senate.

Some argue that it's a politicized process in which party leaders wield their power to either diminish or accelerate discipline for political gain, a complaint that now-ousted Representative Lebsock had lobbed against Democratic leadership.

Investigations Law Group is recommending procedures that take politics out of the complaint process. The first step is to centralize the complaints rather than have them scattered across sixteen people. Although these roles will still exist under the proposed recommendations, all formal and informal complaints would be sent to the Office of Legislative Culture. Complaints can be filed anonymously.

Once a formal complaint is investigated under the proposed recommendations, it goes through two layers of review. Initial investigation results will go before a volunteer, non-partisan panel for review, which will then pass its recommendations to a legislative committee — dubbed the Standing Workplace Culture Committee — in either chamber. Final judgment will be made in these committees on serious complaints of sexual harassment.

The recommendations include resolving formal complaints within ninety days. One case of race discrimination was alleged in the report to have taken three years to resolve.

"The fact that they want to depoliticize the process is one of the most important things we can do in changing the policies and moving forward," says Representative Faith Winter. Winter publicly came out about her sexual-harassment complaint against Lebsock late last year, which led to other women coming forward. When asked if she was surprised that so many have admitted to seeing and experiencing harassment, she says, "I'm not surprised. We're friends, and we talk about it frequently. The reason why I came forward was to actually shine a light on it and not just talk about it in our offices behind closed doors and warn our interns."

Policies alone won't change the tide for the Capitol. A commitment to improving the culture and dealing with bad actors by all Statehouse employees, legislators and lobbyists will be the linchpin in plans to eradicate all inappropriate workplace behavior, says Investigations Law Group's Rita.

"You can have the best policy and the best procedures, and if the culture doesn't support the full application of those policies and procedures, then they'll be the window dressing," she says. "So culture is going to be really important."

For any robust sexual-harassment policy to be put in place, the General Assembly will have to vote to adjust state laws, including those around public disclosure of records. Current state law explicitly prohibits disclosure of sexual-harassment complaints and investigations. Under the new proposal, the Office of Legislative Culture would publish annually the number of complaints that were received and resolved. Substantiated allegations against legislators would also be made public.

This legislative session alone, two senators have been accused of inappropriate behavior, with Senator Randy Baumgardner overcoming an expulsion vote this week after a complaint that he slapped and grabbed a legislative aide's buttocks in 2016. Senator Jack Tate has also been accused of leering at an intern and inappropriately commenting on her skirt. Lebsock was accused of sexual harassment by at least eleven women before his expulsion in March. And a complaint against Denver Democrat Paul Rosenthal was dismissed because it dated back to before he was an elected official.

Read the full legislative workplace report here:

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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi