AURORA | There have been at least a handful of formal sexual harassment complaints filed against Colorado lawmakers in recent weeks amidst a national wave of sexual harassment allegations, but beyond those it’s nearly impossible to tell how prevalent sexual harassment complaints are under Denver’s gold dome.
While specific information about personnel issues, such as a sexual harassment complaint, are generally off limits to the public, the state Legislature couldn’t even provide data on how many complaints there have been.
The Aurora Sentinel sent a Colorado Open Records Act request to House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Senate President Kevin Grantham asking how many formal complaints their respective office has received since 2014.
The Office of Legislative Legal Services, which acts as general counsel for the Legislature, declined to offer any records, citing a statute that explains, “any records of sexual harassment complaints and investigations, whether or not such records are maintained as part of a personnel file” aren’t available to the public.
But that same statute says it does not rule out records that are the result of an investigation of the general employment policies and procedures, so long as that information doesn’t disclose the identity of individuals involved.
When the Sentinel asked for the records again, citing that portion of the statute, attorneys responded by saying no such list of how many formal complaints have been filed exists, and policy dictates that, “a document will not ordinarily be created in order to respond to (a public records) request.”
Attorneys said there likely wasn’t any way to get the number of sexual harassment complaints, as no document stating how many there have been exists.
When asked if the House leader could volunteer the number of complaints, spokesman Dean Toda said, “Speaker Duran can’t volunteer information she is forbidden to provide. The General Assembly’s Workplace Harassment Policy requires that complaints be kept confidential, thus preventing Speaker Duran from disclosing any information about the complaints, including statistics.”
While it’s unclear how many complaints there have been in recent years, media reports show there have been nearly a handful in recent weeks.
This week, reporting from public radio station KUNC and the Denver Post revealed a formal complaint has been launched against Republican Sen. Jack Tate, who allegedly made several inappropriate comments to an 18-year-old intern. Rep. Faith Winter filed a formal complaint against fellow Democrat Rep. Steve Lebsock for sexual comments he made to Winter at a legislative event in a bar in 2016.
A former legislative aide also filed a complaint against Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner for allegedly grabbing the aide’s buttocks multiple times throughout the 2017 legislative session, according to KUNC.
Democrat Rep. Paul Rosenthal has two complaints against him, according to Denver news station KDVR and the Denver Post, one stemming from before he was a state representative and another alleging he abused his office in trying to get a date with the brother of a legislature staffer.
As allegations and complaints continue to surface, leadership has committed to addressing the legislature’s sexual harassment policies.
“Legislative leaders will meet Dec. 15 to discuss hiring an independent consultant to formally review our existing policies and procedures around workplace harassment, including recommending how confidentiality should be handled and proper safeguards to allow patterns to be detected,” said Duran in a statement to the Sentinel. “I hope that through this process and the input we will seek from a wide range of interested parties, we can make changes to our policies as needed to properly protect victims and handle issues of workplace harassment when they occur.”
Duran said the current process was built on confidentiality, rather than transparency, so that victims could file complaints without fear of retribution.
“In revising our policy, there should be adequate confidentiality provisions to respect the victim’s wishes about how they want their individual situations to be handled,” she said. “There also should be safeguards to allow patterns of harassment to be clearly detected and handled appropriately.”
There isn’t one sexual harassment policy that covers every state employee. Depending on the branch of government, the policy varies.
For any legislative employees or most people doing business in the Capitol, the General Assembly policy applies — which defines sexual harassment as:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”
For state departments that fall under the executive branch, a blanket policy applies, but each department handles complaints on their own. Doug Platt, a spokesperson for the Department of Personnel and Administration, said a resolution is encouraged “at the lowest level, if possible,” meaning a direct supervisor or department head.
That policy was last updated in 2007. Platt said it tends to be pretty robust, but would be updated on an as-needed basis.
State legislatures, as all employers, aren’t required to have sexual harassment policies, but federal regulations do say employers “should take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, such as affirmatively raising the subject, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under title VII, and developing methods to sensitize all concerned.”
Last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group for state legislatures, conducted a human resources survey, finding that “49 offices in 44 states responded to the survey and 37 offices reported “having formal, written personnel policy or guidance for legislative employees” on sexual harassment.