Aurora City Councilmember Steve Sundberg

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.

30 replies on “Aurora City Council used state sexual harassment law to keep city lawmaker allegations undisclosed”

  1. The quotes by Sundberg, Bergan, Coffman are all as disgraceful as the act. They are disparaging and minimizing the victim by saying that making a report is “politically motivated” and “silly” and “a joke” and “blown out of proportion”. If Sundberg was really apologizing and taking accountability for his mistake, he wouldn’t be publicly hurting the person who was offended more by trying to delegitimize her feelings. That’s not an apology, it’s deflection. This poor woman, who was just doing her job, is now getting blasted in the NEWSPAPER by someone who abused his position of authority over her already. This is why people don’t report when they are harassed or attacked – because their accusers and the buddies of the accuser will always try to turn it back on the victim instead of just apologizing and making amends. Shameful that Sundberg did this, shameful that the other Councilmembers protected him and hid it (THAT is the politically motivated thing here, not the report!), shameful that they would then make dehumanizing comments about it in PUBLIC. The staff member never asked for a public shit show, she just wanted to be safe in a professional workplace and she should have been respected for following the process. Sundberg owes her ANOTHER apology now, and so do Bergan and Gardner and Coffman. Shameful.

    1. Sandy, you take this story so seriously. Too bad, so sad. Ever listen to a dirty joke or story? And laugh? Shameful.

      1. I was told dirty jokes in the workplace, Dick. FIFTY YEARS AGO, in the past, where that kind of behavior belongs. Locker room talk isn’t for offices, you know that. The way you talk to women you date should be different than you talk to women you work with – it’s not that hard, you learned how to talk differently to your mother than you talk to your wife, you can learn this. There we’re plenty of dirty jokes told AT me in the 70s in my workplace and I did not participate and I did not like it, and as a secretary in a law firm under dirty-minded men who weren’t being told to behave themselves like adults at a job instead of pickup artists at a bar, I was not able to report it or even tell those men that I didn’t like it, that it made me uncomfortable, that it wasn’t okay – and later, when one of those men propositioned me, it was even less fair and hard for me to say “no” because I was afraid he would take away my job. I was fired for saying that I didn’t want to get drinks with that man. That’s what sexual harassment is, Dick, and Steve Sundberg making those jokes makes it a negative environment. Even if he’s not going to proposition his secretary, he might have just made some other young man or worker think it was okay to try, because that young man just saw the powerful, VIP CITY COUNCILMAN start it. He has a responsibility to be a good example of workplace behavior, and when you’re the boss, you have a responsibility to the people below you in the chain of command, it is your JOB and DUTY to never abuse your power over the people who work for you – and you are supposed to know that making dirty jokes IN THE WORKPLACE with PEOPLE BELOW YOU is wrong, because those people are can’t feel safe telling you if they’re uncomfortable. That was the 1970’s and it was a BAD TIME, Dick – laws and policies were out in place to stop it, to make workplaces different. Welcome to the present, where we simply treat our colleagues like colleagues instead of drinking buddies. It’s a better time.

        Where’s your sense of law and order now? There are laws and rules and Steve Sundberg broke them. He should have been reprimanded and held accountable for those actions, that is what law and order means. You can’t claim to be a law and order guy and then think the laws and rules that you don’t like don’t apply to the people you wish you were friends with. The rules apply to everyone, and they include that dirty jokes and talking about your genitals in the workplace isnt allowed. Steve Sundberg broke the rules and he’s getting off scot-free because he’s wealthy and powerful, and THAT should big a big deal to you.

        1. Sandy seems like you got some sand. Keep being offended. You’re trying too hard for pointless things. And we all know it was potilical. Just the way things are with the left. Cancel culture to the max. And all we have to say is no keep being offended and move on.

        2. Wow, Sandy, brought out a lot of your #Wetoo self. Personally, although you obviously do not, I liked the freedom of the 70’s especially compared to the hatred going around in the 2020’s.

          Don’t think for a minute that Steve is wealthy nor powerful even for Aurora. Your long winded history did not move me one inch to believe anything that Steve did deserves any mention as to be news worthy.

  2. Conservative did the deed, conservatives covered for the person doing the deed, conservatives say it’s all ok now. Where is their integrity??

    1. And did you lose your integrity, Doug, when you heard a dirty story of joke? Come on Doug, admit it that this is a non event not a cover up.

      1. It’s no longer 1950, the year I assume you retired Dick. Dirty jokes in any modern workplace will get you fired.

  3. OK, folks, here we go. THIS spate of councilors promised to be more transparent and now THIS? I am actually shocked at the behavior of this bunch that has shamed itself after only 9 months in office. They hit the ground running, with playbook in hand.

    Then we can address the actual and alleged harassment. Or not, since nothing will be revealed to us. I, for one would like to know if it was substantive, as so-many claims these days are not, but I would also say that an apology does not undo the act. People have come to believe it does. In any case the complainant needs to be respected.

    As is often the case, alcohol makes everything worse. And then there is the definite possibility of political motivation in these complaints, which I decry, regardless of source. This has already cost us a police chief.

    How is it appropriate for a councilor to talk about prancing around with a mask on his junk? Is this really what it’s come down to with this council?

    Only God can help us now.

    1. Not true. Voting helps. There are recalls too. Takes time and major effort though. All 3 of these newly elected councilmembers have caused issues. Yet! Look at their support. Unbelievable.

    2. I’m guessing Joe, that you realize that this story is not substantive and not worth your time or mine in commenting.

      1. And yet you post comments throughout this section. I’ve witnessed occurrences or read stories about several scumbags making crude and suggestive statements to or around other work associates. When called out for these disgusting habits, they all have the same response, “It was just a joke…Those offended are overly sensitive…Everyone is so PC.” Those who defend, excuse or dismiss this behavior, Dick, are equally disgusting: “you take this story so seriously…this is a non event…this story is not substantive and not worth your time or mine in commenting…get over it.”

  4.  “The Sentinel obtained a copy of the April 20 report” 
    The Sentinel editors won’t, can’t or unwilling to get it. You say you have the documents and reports. Your pattern of not to put a copy of these to inspect is the case. Why not publish all this public information? Talk about transparency? So we are to take your word for what these say and truly expect us to believe your most neutral perspective- right! How trustworthy is the Sentinel after all? You hold back many of my comments the way it is and I suspect others as well.           

  5. Steve currently says this situation was a simple thing blown out of proportion and that he is wiser now. I couldn’t agree more. Get over it Sentinel and stop writing that this is more like a “rape” than a “dirty joke” story told in front of a group of employees. How very sensationalist on your part if not purely political.

    Do you think the citizens of Aurora would think that this article is only politically motivated if they knew your confidential informant was one of the Socialists on Council? Which hurts our City more, Steve’s story back in December or your reporting this non important event?

    I’m fairly sure that there will be a Sentinel editorial to further escalate this fake news story. Thanks for all your hard work on City Council, Steve. Lessons learned about being a politician come from many strange places.

    1. You literally no nothing about the situation other than what you’ve read here, but you’ll do anything to prop up a white conservative male to shield you from your fragility.

  6. So let me get this straight. A city councilman makes a crude joke about his genitalia to one or more female staffers (paragraphs 18 and 19) but the staffers are to blame for being too “sensitive,” and for blowing something “minor” and “silly” out of proportion.

    I fail to see how a staffer reporting unprofessional behavior of an elected official could be construed as “minor,” “silly”or “politically motivated”when the councilman is the politician. Bad behavior is bad behavior irrespective of politics.

    Surely we can agree that sex jokes and comments about strip clubs are unwelcome in the workplace regardless of how “nervous and challenging (a)situation” may be perceived to be. (Is it not concerning that this councilman reacts to challenging situations by relating penis jokes?)

    The councilman says “As the last word came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t fitting.” But I am willing to bet this official didn’t apologize immediately as implied in the article, but only after completing “workplace behavior training.”

    Pro tip: Never talk about your genitalia in public.

  7. So let me get this straight. A newly elected city councilman makes a crude joke about his genitalia to one or more female staffers (paragraphs 18 and 19) but the staffers are to blame for being too “sensitive,” and for blowing something “minor” and “silly” out of proportion.

    I fail to see how a staffer reporting unprofessional behavior of an elected official could be construed as “minor,” “silly”or “politically motivated”when the councilman is the politician. Bad behavior is bad behavior irrespective of politics.

    Surely we can agree that sex jokes and comments about strip clubs are unwelcome in the workplace regardless of how “nervous and challenging (a)situation”may be perceived to be. (Is it not concerning that this councilman reacts to challenging situations by relating penis jokes?)

    The councilman says “As the last word came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t fitting.” But I am willing to bet this official didn’t apologize immediately as implied in the article, but only after completing “workplace behavior training.”

    Pro tip: Never talk about your genitalia in public. Full stop.

  8. Aurora Council get ready. You can already smell what’s cooking? This wokester crowd will now be looking for the most-important backbone of good government—The ole “sensitivity training classes” requirement for city council. 1)Got a felony?                                                 

    2)Past gangster?                                                                     

     No problem come on down – We got ya covered. 

  9. I had high hopes for Steve. So where is the action?:

    • Improving Public Safety
    • Fostering a Business Friendly Aurora
    • Finding viable solutions to address our Homeless, and recovery for people chronic addiction

    Other than clean water, public safety should be the most important priority of city government.
    According to the national Association of Realtors, the US has under built it’s housing needs by at least 5 1/2 million units over the past 20 years. We need to increase the supply of attainable housing, especially multi family units within our city, allowing access for first time homebuyers, whether that be a townhome, a condominium or a single-family home.

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