AURORA | Allegations that Aurora Councilmember Steve Sundberg made sexually suggestive comments around city staff were investigated and confirmed but kept from the public under a Colorado law that gives cities broad discretion to withhold records related to sexual harassment.
A group of three other council members decided not to discipline Sundberg, with Sundberg saying the allegations were “minor,” and because Sundberg had reportedly apologized. No recordings were made or minutes taken of the group’s meetings.
A confidential source reported the allegations against Sundberg to The Sentinel, which requested relevant records from the City of Aurora, including an email sent to council members that contained a third-party report on the matter.
The city refused to turn over those records and initially refused to provide a specific legal reason for doing so. Senior assistant city attorney Dave Lathers eventually acknowledged that records were withheld under a portion of Colorado’s Open Records Act allowing local governments to block the release of records having to do with sexual harassment allegations.
The Sentinel obtained a copy of the April 20 report from a confidential source and confirmed the document’s authenticity with multiple council members.
Open government advocates say that, while the state’s public records laws were written to protect the privacy of victims, by allowing cities to withhold “any records of sexual harassment complaints and investigations,” the law also allows cities to hide the results of those investigations from the public, which may have the secondary effect of shielding perpetrators from scrutiny.
“There’s a strong public interest in knowing the outcome of these investigations,” Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition president Steve Zansberg said of the law. “Allowing those who have been accused of sex harassment to go unidentified for years on end is not consistent with the general view that this workplace conduct is unacceptable and should be eradicated.”
In the report on the allegations against Sundberg, investigators describe comments made by the first-term city lawmaker in the presence of city employees, two of whom complained to city officials.
Sundberg later alluded to the situation at the conclusion of a City Council meeting and described some details of the incidents to The Sentinel. On May 9, Sundberg told the council that, in December 2021, he was in “a nervous and challenging situation in which I blurted out a joke or a story which was about a prank.”
“Upon completing that I realized it was an inappropriate thing to say,” he said. “I do genuinely care about other people and how I treat them, so I am meeting with a couple of staff tomorrow to apologize, have a crucial conversation about that and move on with important city business.”
Sundberg later said that, during a December meeting which included city staff members, attendees had commented on a mask that he was wearing. He said he replied with a “joke or story” about wearing a mask over his genitals.
“I related a prank that was played on a really good friend of mine where I wore a large mask as a loincloth and gave it to my friend,” he said. “As the last word came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t fitting. I wasn’t trying to be lewd or offensive.”
Sundberg’s account was consistent with the information included in the report, which concluded that the council member “made an inappropriate comment about the size of his mask in relation to his genitals.”
The source who contacted The Sentinel also referenced comments made by Sundberg about a strip club; Sundberg declined to provide details about the incident, except to say that a second complainant made that allegation and that he regretted what he had said.
“I was answering sarcasm with sarcasm,” he said. “I made a regrettable joke in a moment of nervousness. I apologize to those two people.”
According to the report, Sundberg was responding to a city employee who told him that council members must submit itemized receipts along with purchases, and that alcohol could not be expensed.
“Council Member Sundberg responded by asking if … that meant he could not submit receipts from a strip club,” the report says. “Witness 1 said that she believed the comment was misconstrued, but she recognized that some people are ‘more sensitive’ than others. Witness 2 … said she believed Council Member Sundberg made the comment in jest and did not notice that the comment bothered Complainant 1.”
Sundberg told investigators that he thought the employee was being sarcastic with her comment about alcohol because that information was made “abundantly clear” during his orientation.
A third allegation was included in the report — that Sundberg “leered” at the complainant after making the strip club comment and looked at her “from head to toe … and back up again” on at least one other occasion — but was not substantiated because others who were present did not recall that happening.
Sundberg later said a group of council members reviewed the findings of the report and found the allegations to be “minor” and “politically motivated.”
Harassment allegations against council members are handled by an “evaluation committee,” which council rules say should be composed of the mayor, currently Mike Coffman; the mayor pro tem, currently Francoise Bergan; and the chairperson of the Management & Finance Policy Committee, currently Curtis Gardner.
Bergan said that, because she witnessed the “strip club” comment, she recused herself from the committee and was replaced by Councilmember Angela Lawson. Bergan characterized the remark as a joke that had gone over poorly.
“It was nothing. It was like a bad joke,” she said. “It was silly, honestly. And as a woman, if it had been something serious, I would have required something be done.”
Notices of potential quorum for two meetings of a council evaluation committee were published in February and March. The subject of one of the meetings was the “selection of an investigator,” but the city later said in response to a records request that no minutes or recordings were kept of either meeting.
Colorado law requires city councils to keep meeting minutes when “the adoption of any proposed policy, position, resolution, rule, regulation or formal action occurs or could occur.”
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said that, if the group of three council members made the decision not to discipline Sundberg, the city put itself in a questionable position by not keeping records of their meetings.
“It seems to me there should be a record of this,” he said.
Gardner said the committee decided not to discipline Sundberg in part because not all of the allegations against Sundberg were substantiated, and because Sundberg had reportedly apologized to his accuser.
“My understanding was that council member had apologized, and as far as we were concerned, that was as far as we thought it needed to go,” Gardner said.
It is unclear whether the committee communicated with or interviewed the employees who complained about Sundberg’s behavior.
Councilmember Ruben Medina, who along with Alison Coombs confirmed the authenticity of the report received by The Sentinel, said he was told by evaluation committee members that no action would be taken against Sundberg after he apologized and completed workplace behavior training.
“When something like that happens, it taints us all,” Medina said.
Medina also shared an email that he sent to council members in May, in which he blasts Sundberg for his conduct toward city employees.
“It shows disregard for others and no respect or moral fortitude. Especially, someone in a power position telling subordinates,” Medina’s email reads in part. “You are a grown man, not a child who did not know. To me this shows a pattern because you not only did this once but twice.”
Since the 1990s, cities like Aurora have been broadly empowered to withhold records related to sexual harassment allegations. Zansberg said the law was meant to protect government workers from the stigma and retaliation that sometimes results from reporting sexual harassment as well as to protect officials from false accusations.
“But it is ironic that when people have been identified as having been the subject of a complaint that the public is not entitled to know the outcome,” he said. “If it’s possible to disclose the records and at a minimum the findings of the investigation without identifying the accusers, that would be a far better regime.”
In one high-profile case decided last year, reporters from the Denver Post and Denver North Star were blocked from obtaining an unredacted copy of a report on sexual harassment allegations facing Denver Public Schools Board of Education member Tay Anderson.
Judge J. Eric Elliff acknowledged in his ruling that “due to Mr. Anderson’s position as an elected official, and particularly as one in the context of school administration, the contents of this report are of the utmost concern to the public.”
He also wrote that the broad exemption under CORA was “somewhat unusual,” as other states allow courts to weigh the value of such documents to the public when deciding whether to compel their release.
But in Colorado, what voters are allowed to know about their representatives’ alleged sexual misbehavior is left largely up to local governments.
“When you’re talking about an elected official who’s accountable to the voters, how do the voters get to see information that’s important for them to evaluate if CORA says you can’t release anything?,” asked Roberts. “There’s not really a mechanism for that in the law right now.”
While Roberts said he and others have approached state legislators about rewriting the exemption to CORA, there has yet to be visible progress toward changing the law.
Sundberg said he has since reconciled with his accusers and that he is “wiser now.”
“I think it was a simple thing that was blown out of proportion, and I want to move forward,” he said.