In a historic move, Thornton Democrat Steve Lebsock was expelled today by the Colorado House of Representatives in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment by at least eleven women, including Democratic colleague Representative Faith Winter.
After hours of testimony, personal battles with sexual harassment and assault, and tears, the chamber voted 52 to 9 to expel Lebsock. The House needed at least 44 votes to give Lebsock the boot. Expulsion is the most severe form of punishment for a lawmaker and has only been exercised by the House one other time: in 1915, when Representative William Howland was ousted following a bribery investigation.
Several House members made impassioned pleas for Lebsock's removal. They accused him not only of behaving immorally and in a manner unbecoming to an elected official, but also of creating a toxic work environment at the Capitol by allegedly retaliating against those who have spoken out against him. House Democrats hope that by expelling Lebsock, they send a clear message about the level of civility and decorum that members of the chamber must uphold, whether that be outside or underneath the Gold Dome. House Majority Whip Brittany Pettersen, whom Winter called the night of the alleged harassment, was one of the earliest supporters of Lebsock's expulsion. She laid out a case for his expulsion and her own experience dealing with his retaliatory behavior.
"When Representative Winter told me about her experience, we discussed the numerous women who have come to me as well," Pettersen said. "She chose to have a private conversation [in 2016] ... but the stories continued. Aides were told to stay away, and lobbyists continued to be told to never, ever meet with him alone. And then Representative Winter heard even more stories, more stories from women who continue to be treated this way by Representative Lebsock, and that's when she decided to go public."
Those who voted against Lebsock's expulsion thought there was a lack of due process and that expelling him without going through an extensive and exhaustive process would set a wrong precedent. Although stories had been circulating in the media, including a couple by Westword, an independent investigation of the allegations had only wrapped up on Monday, which gave House lawmakers but a few days to thoroughly dig through the evidence. A hearing was held where the investigator answered questions any lawmakers had.
"I definitely saw some inconsistencies that I called into question, but that's not here or there," says Representative Justin Everett. "I think we should have had longer to review the documents because we are making a pretty major decision. ... One of the things I think we need to cover is who is Representative Steve Lebsock's employer. We've been talking about the sexual-harassment policy. Well, Representative Lebsock was not hired by a manager. He wasn't hired by a person. He was hired by the voters. So if we're going to usurp the will of the voters, this has got to be a high standard to remove someone from office. I also think it sets a very dangerous precedent. When we're starting to kick out members and we have a low threshold of both standard and the number of votes, I think it sets a very dangerous precedent of when we remove a member."
Lebsock was first publicly accused by Winter in November over allegations of sexual harassment in 2016, when he allegedly attempted to get her to leave a bar with him and was using sexually explicit language. Since she came forward, a former lobbyist and a Capitol aide have gone public with separate allegations against him. Lebsock has been accused by at least eleven women.
An independent investigation was launched in late November; its findings, which House Democrats circulated on Tuesday, allege that Lebsock made sexually explicit remarks, remarked on and ogled one woman's breasts at an event, unbuttoned the top of a woman's blouse, said a woman was perfect except she needed to shave the top part of her legs, and solicited three of the complainants for sex, including Winter.
Lebsock to the very end has denied the claims and has called the investigation a "flawed process." He continued to refer to a polygraph test that he paid for last year as proof of his innocence with regard to Winter's allegations against him.
"There was no touching of the arm. There was no attempted grab. There was no touching at all. That's the reason why I passed the polygraph," Lebsock says, while also defending his 28-page dossier "debunking" Winter's and other women's claims as not a form of retaliation, but a way to get his story out.
He followed that up with a letter from his former aide from 2013, who claimed that she had never seen anything that would indicate that Lebsock had ever engaged in sexual harassment or did anything inappropriate when she worked with him.
Lebsock had the final word before legislators voted. Teary-eyed and aware that defeat was inevitable, he still resisted calls to resign, even from House Speaker Crisanta Duran, who gave him one last chance before a vote would be held. He stuck it out to the very end. Seeing his defeat, he took the last few minutes to say goodbye to the chamber he had served since he was first elected by Thornton residents in 2012.
"You know, life goes on. I love this institution. It's been the honor of my life to serve the people of Colorado, and I was willing to fight this year for the people of Colorado," he said. "Members [of the House], please remember that we should always strive to do the right thing and try to put partisan politics behind us. And it's not about winning at all costs when it boils down right to it. Could we start putting that behind us? I'm not sure if we can, but it might be naive of me to say that. I've been told I'm naive a time or two. Members, I found something I was good at — fighting for the people — and it's been the honor of my life. I wish you well, and I wish the people of Colorado all the best, and simply vote your conscience. It's okay. Take care."
Before he was expelled, Lebsock switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican, meaning the GOP will get to fill his seat.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.