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A New Firm Investigating Sexual Harassment Claims At Colorado Capitol

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0

The independent Employers Council, which has been tasked with investigating several state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment, is defending its work. The lawmakers -- accused of misconduct by colleagues, Capitol workers, interns and aides -- have criticized the council’s efforts to get to the bottom of allegations. Some have even raised the question of bias. Amid this, and efforts to oust a lawmaker over allegations, two investigations in the Senate are now being handled by a new firm that declined to comment on its methods.

One of the recurrent phrases in Employers Council reports is "more likely than not." That is a measure of whether investigators found the accuser and his/her allegations to be believable. Sexual harassment allegations against four lawmakers at the legislature, that our reporting has uncovered, contained that key phrase -- often multiple times. Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat is facing an expulsion vote Friday (March 2, 2018). It would be an unprecedented step that has only happened once in state history. House Majority Leader KC Becker recommended expulsion  and was the contact person for his case. "His behavior demonstrated a pattern of behavior that not only violated the policy but puts the integrity of this body at risk."

She said the investigation was thorough that found 11 credible allegations against him from five women.

“For each of the several allegations, the investigator reached findings using the preponderance of evidence standard,” stated Becker in a memo. “This is the standard of proof applied in most civil court cases addressing equal employment opportunity matters.”

Michele Sturgell, a certified investigations manager with the Employers Council, defended the council in a statement after being asked to comment.

“Our investigators are trained as neutral fact finders and have a breadth of knowledge and experience in conducting investigations,” Sturgell stated. We are contracted to conduct third party investigations because we have no interest in the outcome which enables us to provide neutral, unbiased, findings.”

Legislative attorneys have paid annual dues to the Employers Council for about 20 years for HR and personnel support. The council conducts some 150 investigations a year in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

“These [investigations] vary in subject matter but can include any allegation of inappropriate workplace conduct, including; harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, pay disparity, hostile work environment, workplace violence, assault, and theft,” Sturgell stated.

Lebsock and Sens. Randy Baumgardner, Jack Tate and Larry Crowder have all raised questions about the Employers Council investigations against them.  All the lawmakers deny wrongdoing. Top leaders at the legislature --Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, both Republicans -- have questioned the council's methods.

“There are several things in the report, process, fact finding, and conclusions that I have questions on and I would like to talk to the investigator and I think my caucus would too,” said Neville of the investigation into Lebsock.

Neville also has said that other lawmakers have only seen a report on Lebsock with many parts blacked out, making it difficult to follow.

Others in the House trust the investigation and said there needs to be a balance in making the report public but protecting those who came forward with allegations.

Sturgell declined to comment on any specific cases.

“We cannot and will not comment on any ongoing or prior investigation," Sturgell stated. "It would not be appropriate for us to do so."

Accusers meanwhile have felt vindicated by the investigations. They said being believed is what is needed to shift a culture at the Capitol where a handful of lawmakers have blurred the lines of decency and professionalism, acted inappropriately and made some feel objectified, belittled and even unsafe.

“There’s a dark undercurrent that’s coming into the light and we can’t root it out until we shine a light into all of those dark places,” said former legislative aide Cassie Tanner. She filed a formal complaint against Lebsock, alleging he unbuttoned part of her blouse.

The Employers Council has found credible allegations of vulgar language, unwanted sexual advances, grabbing and pinching, leering and unsolicited sexual conversation.

Yet the accusers do not have control of who investigates. That is up to the House and the Senate. The Senate, led by Grantham, has moved away from the Employers Council to another firm in at least two ongoing investigations into sexual harassment.

Littleton Alternative Dispute Resolutions is looking into those two formal complaints, which are against Baumgardner, a Republican, from Hot Sulphur Springs.

The contact person in those cases is the Senate secretary, who selects firms to investigate. She declined to comment on why a change was made, as did Grantham, who further declined to comment on whether he had a role in the selection of the new firm.

There is no indication that the Littleton firm would conduct investigations dramatically differently from the Employers Council. But the change does not sit well with one of Baumgardner's previous accusers, whose allegations have already been found credible. She wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and wondered if Senate leaders were shopping for a different kind of investigation.

“Staffers and interns and people of Colorado deserve better," she said. "Shame on them.”

The new firm, Littleton Alternative Dispute Resolutions, declined to comment about its process for investigating sexual harassment claims at the Capitol. The organization’s main focus appears to be mediation and arbitration but the website lists fact finding as another service it offers. It said each of its four attorneys has experience in helping organizations resolve conflicts amicably by creating a level of comfort that doesn’t exist in the courtroom.

“The question is whether they are seeking a firm that will be less likely to find allegations credible, in which case that’s a problem,” said law professor Joanna Grossman, from SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas. She is a national expert on workplace harassment. “If they were unsatisfied with the first firm for a valid reason, then of course they are free to switch.”

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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