New Sexual Harassment Allegations At Colorado’s Capitol Illustrate Ongoing Fear Of Retaliation
An outside consultant, who studied workplace culture at the state Capitol, found nearly half of the roughly 500 people surveyed had witnessed sexist and/or seriously disrespectful behavior. A third said they had experienced sexual harassment first-hand. And nearly 90 percent of those who say they were harassed didn’t speak out or file a complaint. Many said they feared retaliation from their accusers and others.
Those findings, by the Investigations Law Group, mirror what we’ve discovered in almost six months of reporting on this issue.
Our sources -- both named and unnamed -- say the Capitol’s culture needs to improve. They want elected officials to be held to a high standard, but most don’t want to go public or file a formal complaint, fearing it will cost them professionally, or even personally.
Those that are fearful include four current and former Republican female staffers who are now sharing their allegations of inappropriate behavior by Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican. Joining them are four more current and former GOP staffers – three men and one woman – who say they witnessed or were aware of complaints about Baumgardner’s behavior.
The allegations date back to 2009 but also as recently as the 2017 legislative session. They range from inappropriate hugging, to vulgar comments and sexual jokes.
One woman, who alleges Baumgardner made inappropriate sexual comments to her, said she did not want to be named because she’s afraid of how top GOP leaders and political operatives would respond. She also fears filing a confidential complaint with Senate Republican leaders because they would then know it was her.
Under the workplace harassment policy, a person accused of wrongdoing can also release information about it. She thinks Republicans would blacklist her from future jobs and brand her as disloyal. She has considered coming forward for months, but ultimately changed her mind.
“It's just giving me way too much anxiety,” she wrote in a text message.
Baumgardner has already faced three formal complaints and independent investigations.
One has been completed. It found a former legislative aide’s allegations credible that in 2016 Baumgardner grabbed and slapped her buttocks multiple times. Baumgardner has denied wrongdoing.
On April 2, 2018, Baumgardner survived a Democratic led expulsion vote based on that harassment investigation. It failed largely along party lines.
Accuser's Investigation Somehow Became Public
The accuser in that complaint wanted the contents of the full investigation to remain confidential to protect her anonymity. Yet it became public. The investigation was leaked to a right-leaning website, Complete Colorado. That website redacted the accuser's name, but identified who she had worked for – a Democrat – leading some to try to name her. The accuser declined to comment for this story.
Others who come forward with allegations have been criticized.
Former legislative aide Cassie Tanner was one of the first to speak out publicly with allegations of sexual harassment against former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock. She alleged that Lebsock unbuttoned the top part of her shirt. But for several months she declined to file a formal complaint because she didn’t think he would face consequences.
“I thought the politics would override doing the right thing,” she said.
Tanner eventually filed a complaint and said it was because she was being attacked in the media and felt it was the only possibility for justice. Lebsock denied all of the harassment allegations against him, but an independent investigation found claims from five women, including Tanner, credible.
“I wasn’t prepared for the level of victim blaming and vitriol that was put to me and the other accusers,” said Tanner. “It really shook me and it makes me understand why other people don’t come forward.”
But Tanner said she wishes they would: “It’s the only way to change the way that culture operates.”
Tanner also got an outcome she never expected. The House voted overwhelmingly to expel Lebsock after a dramatic day in March. The last expulsion vote in Colorado was 103 years ago. The tipping point for many House members was testimony that Lebsock had retaliated against his accusers by calling them liars and releasing a 28-page memo with explicit details about their personal lives.
Report: 'Individuals May Fear Further Retaliation'
The workplace study on the Capitol’s culture said the current system fails to adequately address the issue of retaliation.
“Retaliation is a serious problem and a fear of retaliation prevents issues from surfacing, keeps people from raising problems and enables a culture of harassment to fester, ” stated the Investigations Law Group.
For instance, the consultant said leaders in the House and Senate should no longer oversee sexual harassment complaints and investigations, and personal information should be redacted from final a investigation report so those imposing punishments don’t know the accuser’s name. The report said lawmakers must be promptly held accountable for misconduct and a retaliation claim should trigger a separate investigation.
“Individuals may fear further retaliation for filing another report, in addition to their initial complaint of sexual harassment. This reiterates the importance of retaliation policies, as well as the monitoring and enforcement of those policies,” according to the report.
Historically, many complaints have been handled informally. One woman told us she complained in 2012 to then-chief of Staff Jesse Mallory that Baumgardner gave her long and unwanted hugs each day. The Senate minority leader at the time, Bill Cadman, allegedly barred Baumgardner from hugging staffers at work. Cadman did not return our requests to comment for this story.
Mallory who now heads Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, didn’t deny that people raised concerns about Baumgardner’s behavior to him as recently as last session, but said he couldn’t remember anything specific off the top of his head.
Others said they didn’t even think to complain because sexual harassment was so common.
“Anyone who works in that building knows this happens everywhere,” said one former Republican staffer who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “It wasn’t something that people said you should report. It was just an eye roll and ‘here he goes again.’”
She alleges that during a two-year period ending in 2016, Baumgardner would frequently give her inappropriate hugs and make off-color jokes about his sex life. She said she and other colleagues felt uneasy about his alleged behavior but accepted it as part of the job.
She now has a job that requires working closely with Republicans, so she said coming forward could put her career at risk.
“It was unspoken advice, to just kind of get along with people and don’t be overly sensitive and freak out,” the former staffer said. “You don’t want to be the person who can’t handle it.”
There’s no telling how many complaints against members in both parties have been filed over the years. The complaints and the investigations they prompt aren’t a public record and informal complaints aren’t tracked.
Some cases just walk away. Cindi Markwell, the former non-partisan administrative head of the Senate, said a woman told her in 2015 that she felt uncomfortable being around Baumgardner. But Markwell said the woman didn’t want her to report it to Senate leaders and declined to file a complaint.
“She didn’t want to because she worked as an aide or intern,” Markwell said. “I think it had a lot to do with it. She’s a young girl, feeling uncomfortable, but not sure how to take the next step.”
When asked, Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican, told us that he was not aware of any other concerns about Baumgardner’s behavior except for the three formal complaints that have been filed.
“That is completely counter to my experience. To years when [Baumgardner] worked over in the House, and six years here in the Senate, I’ve never heard anything like that, and I’ve been in leadership since 2012.”
Baumgardner declined to comment on the new allegations for this story. The outcome of two other formal complaints against him are still pending.
A future policy could look different. The workplace report recommends hiring more HR staff and creating a standing committee of lawmakers in each chamber to impose punishments for inappropriate behavior. But no rule changes will happen this year, which is what lawmakers originally planned.
Instead, legislative leaders have decided to create a committee of lawmakers to study the issue over the summer and make recommendations for the 2019 legislative session. The consultant advised action this session, and some people both in and outside of the Capitol were disappointed by the delay.
“There’s an argument that says let’s get it right, let’s not rush into action,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “That being said, there needs to be a sense of urgency.”
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.