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Rising Tally For Sexual Harassment Allegations At Colorado's Capitol

Jun 18, 2018
Originally published on June 30, 2018 8:10 am

Sexual harassment allegations at Colorado's Capitol came with a sizeable price tag for taxpayers -- $275,000. That includes everything from fees for attorneys, sexual harassment training and consultants to staffing for a special committee of lawmakers meeting this summer and fall to study changes to the Capitol's workplace harassment policy.

The money, associated with the investigations of four state lawmakers, came out of the Legislative Department Cash Fund.

Legislative leaders hired Investigations Law Group for $120,000 to study the Capitol's culture and come up with recommendations to improve the processes in place to handle complaints and make the building a safer workplace.

Other costs are ongoing, such as hiring a new human resources person for the legislature at an annual cost of $90,000.

Before we broke stories of sexual harassment last November, the legislature had no HR employee to address the workplace concerns of legislators, their aides, lobbyists, interns and visitors to the Capitol.

"I just hope that some good comes out of this whole process and hopefully no one else will go through any sort of complaint process like this," said former intern Megan Creeden who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Sen. Randy Baumgardner.

Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, has denied any wrongdoing. He survived an expulsion vote in the Senate on April 2 on just one of the allegations against him.

Legislative leaders ultimately handle allegations and determine the consequences for members accused of misconduct in their respective chambers. Creeden called the current process, which could change when lawmakers return to the capitol in January, flawed.

"Throughout the whole process I really just felt like I was under water because I didn't know what was going on," Creeden said. "You hear about people involved having lawyers and you think, I know nothing."

Creeden's allegations and other allegations against Baumgardner and other lawmakers — Steve Lebsock, a former Democratic representative and Sens. Larry Crowder and Jack Tate, both Republicans — cost $50,000 to investigate.

Every allegation was found credible and all of the accused deny wrongdoing. Lebsock was removed from office on March 2 in an historic House vote.

"In hindsight I should have hired an attorney earlier," said Lebsock as his colleagues were debating whether or not to expel him from the legislature. "Probably should have hired an attorney and a PR person. I've got one now. I've got a PR person and an attorney now, but it's probably a little bit too late."

Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, was the first to go public with sexual harassment allegations against Lebsock in November. An outside investigator found allegations from four other women against Lebsock to also be credible and said he retaliated against his accusers.

"I did not have a PR consultant," Winter said. "From day one I told the truth. I said the reason I came forward was the behavior hadn't stopped and I wanted to protect other women and when your message is that simple you don't need a lot of help."

House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat who called for Lebsock's resignation, did hire a PR firm. She faced criticism, particularly from Republicans, because she was aware of complaints about Lebsock's behavior as early as 2016. Her critics said she did not do enough to protect others. Duran later apologized.

Duran paid $15,500 to Onsight Public Affairs. In a written statement for this story, Duran justified the expenditure.

"The additional work and the seriousness of the allegations of harassment — coupled with what is already a busy General Assembly schedule — made their assistance both appropriate and necessary," stated Duran.

Duran did not use any state money to hire the firm. She paid for it out of her Leadership PAC, called Duran for Colorado Leadership Fund.

Asked whether lawmakers are allowed to use PAC money for PR situations that emerge when they are in office, Stephen Bouey, a campaign finance manager with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, said there is nothing barring it.

The law, he said, "does not address what they can and cannot do with their contributions."

Baumgardner hired an attorney out of his campaign fund to deal with sexual harassment allegations against him. Bouey said that action would likely be allowed. Campaign funds are different from leadership PACS but only have one spending restriction: A person cannot use the money for personal reasons.

"It does not define what personal reasons are, but I would imagine that if somebody can correlate an expenditure to something related to their official duties as a public official or something related to re-election, that they would be able to theoretically justify that expense," said Bouey. "But again, that would ultimately be up to a judge to determine if a violation had taken place."

The emotional cost of all the sexual harassment allegations is beyond quantification. Many speak of the personal toll the allegations and denials took on them. Two lawmakers said they wore bulletproof vests to the Capitol for weeks because they felt threatened.

The Senate minority leader, a Democrat, stepped down from her leadership position, citing stress as a main reason. She said she could no longer look the Senate Republican leaders in the eye because she felt they were mishandling allegations for political reasons.

Others feared that some of the accused got away with their harassment, perpetuating a culture where those who act unprofessionally or worse, get away with it while accusers put their reputations on the line.

Winter said that lawmakers getting extra professional help could stack the deck against people who may come forward with accusations in the future.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, sits on the Joint Budget Committee and noted the expenses were unexpected. But Lundberg, known as a fiscal conservative, said the expenditures were probably necessary.

"In this case we had to move fast and put some experts on the ground to sort out what we needed to know," he said.

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.

Copyright 2018 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.