Tensions were high at Colorado's Capitol Thursday as Democrats and Republicans discussed whether to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock, who has staunchly denied allegations of sexual harassment.
The last time state legislators kicked out one of their own was more than a century ago. The vote to do so on Friday (March 2, 2018) could have huge political and personal implications for both parties.
At the center of the controversy are those who are satisfied with an independent investigation that sided with five women who accuse Lebsock, a Democrat running for state treasurer, of sexual harassment. On the other side are those who question the methods of the report and worry that the punishment is too extreme for someone accused of such misconduct.
In the middle of it all is Lebsock who is confident he will remain in the House after the votes are tallied.
"My colleagues are not going to expel me," he said Thursday in a quiet committee room. "Even if we went through an extended period where there was due process, at the end of it there would even be more 'No' votes."
Rep. Faith Winter, also a Democrat, was the first to bring allegations against Lebsock. She wants to see him removed.
"If this fails we’re sending a very chilling message to women that work in that building that when they come forward there are no repercussions against elected officials," Winter said.
Winter and other women appeared in the stories we broke about Lebsock starting in November. Winter accuses Lebsock of using vulgar language, grabbing her and trying to initiate sex. An investigator found it more likely than not that Winter's story was credible, along with the stories of four others.
Winter told colleagues that a cultural shift to respecting all at the Capitol means that the allegations of accusers must be believed -- and that there must be consequences.
"It is a step forward," she said. "I hope it’s a big one and not a small one."
It would take a two-thirds vote of the House to remove Lebsock from office. And even if Democrats all voted together, they would still need eight Republicans to join them. But many in the GOP have concerns about the heavily redacted report on Lebsock that was provided to them for review ahead of the vote. The document blacks out names to protect accusers' confidentiality, but there are many other sections covered-up, too.
Several lawmakers said that they don’t have enough facts to make an informed vote.
Then there are those like Rep. Yeulin Willett, a Republican of Grand Junction, who said Lebsock’s behavior does not merit expulsion.
"It’s very hard for me to think of something that would be so egregious as to cause expulsion that wouldn’t also be criminal," he said. "It’s very, very hard."
House Majority Leader KC Becker, a Democrat, recommended expulsion. She said the total 11 allegations from the five women of lewd behavior and unwanted advances – coupled with a 28-page letter Lebsock sent to House members defending himself – is egregious. She said the letter had inappropriate sections and that Lebsock has not taken responsibility for his actions.
"If the only time you’re going to hold your members accountable for their behavior is if it’s criminal, then we are holding ourselves to a lower standard than people in the private sector are held to," Becker said. "That’s not the expectation of the people who elected us and the constitution specifies we can hold our people accountable for behavior."
But Willet feels Democrats are politicizing the matter. That’s one reason he says he was pushing an effort to advance an ethics committee made up of members from both parties to review the evidence and look into Lebsock's case.
"I have seen tweeters trying to say that my motion and our efforts are simply to delay because we are afraid to vote on this," he said. "They are already trying to put us in this box."
Amid the drama of Twitter and dueling statements about motives in the House, in the other chamber, Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican, turned unexpectedly to Denver District Attorney Beth McCann for help. He asked her to conduct criminal investigations of sexual misconduct by lawmakers -- including allegations against three Republican senators that were found to be credible by the Employers Council, the same firm that investigated Lebsock.
“If evidence is found by the DA, to prosecute charges of sexual misconduct by these members of the Colorado legislature, and they are found guilty of the allegations, we as Republican lawmakers are prepared to offer resolutions and vote for expulsion of those members from the Colorado legislature," Grantham said.
Democrats in the Senate have accused Republican Senate leaders of delaying their effort to expel Randy Baumgardner, one of the three senators. Four allegations of sexual harassment against him from one woman were found credible.
The DA’s Office said it would only investigate complaints if a victim comes forward to the police and it appears there was a criminal action.
Regardless of what happens during the expulsion vote, one longtime political observer said Colorado could feel the ramifications for years to come.
“This is not an isolated issue that you can just kind of just look at on its own,” said former Republican state party chairman Dick Wadhams. “This will have repercussions for the entire process... It will have repercussions in the election coming up. This is a very high stakes action that Democrats are going to try to take. They may very well be right to do this.”
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.