Colorado lawmakers urged to unveil misconduct investigations
DENVER (AP) — Colorado is among several statehouses trying to modernize sexual harassment policies and has received recommendations Thursday to publicize investigations into lawmakers accused of misconduct and keep politics out of the process by taking disciplinary decisions away from legislative leaders.
Elected officials nationwide are struggling to hold their own accountable after the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct rocked politics, entertainment and other industries.
The Colorado Legislature commissioned a study by a consulting group after five lawmakers were accused, and the group’s suggested changes come as a Republican and a Democrat faced different punishments.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in March to expel Steve Lebsock, a Democratic representative accused of harassing five women. He was the second state lawmaker, after Arizona Rep. Don Shooter, to be kicked out since the #MeToo movement began last fall.
A vote on whether to expel Randy Baumgardner, a Republican senator accused of groping a young aide on multiple occasions, was delayed for more than a month by GOP leadership, which blasted the investigation as biased and incomplete.
The report by the Denver-based Investigations Law Group recommends revealing investigative results and discipline for offending lawmakers and creating a single standard for lawmakers for handling complaints and investigations. It suggests a system for victims to report violations anonymously, bipartisan panels to decide on punishment and rules for acceptable standards of conduct.
The group also found that there’s no database for complaints or investigations, making it impossible to determine how many misconduct cases have been reported and difficult to create standards for punishment.
The consultancy surveyed hundreds of people, including lawmakers, lobbyists, aides, interns and staff, CEO Elizabeth Rita said. Some 55 percent of female lawmakers had experienced or observed sexually harassment, she said.
“It’s safe to say that no other place in America would consider these numbers as an indicator that its culture around harassment is healthy or that its system is working to detect, to deter and to deal with harassment,” Rita said.
Lawmakers planned to use the report to adopt a new harassment policy before the legislative session ends May 9, but they indicated Thursday that work on a comprehensive policy will take much longer.
“Our changing this policy is critical. I don’t want to risk it” by rushing debate, Democratic House Majority Leader KC Becker said. Republican Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert agreed.
An Associated Press analysis in January found that more than three-fourths of U.S. states have at least one legislative chamber that has updated its sexual harassment policy during the past several months, developed specific proposals to do so or undertaken a review of whether changes are needed.
Legislative chambers in Alaska, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon and Rhode Island are among states considering improved policies. New York lawmakers adopted one last week that applies to state and local governments. New Mexico lawmakers overhauled the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy in January.
Statehouses have introduced nearly 90 measures or resolutions on the issue, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. They range from creating personnel offices to penalties for those who retaliate against accusers.
Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham has called for prosecutors to investigate legislative harassment complaints, which some say unfairly raises the bar.
“What the citizens of Colorado deserve is a policy that’s designed to prevent harassment in the first place,” said Craig Morgan, a Phoenix attorney who prepared an investigative report that preceded the Feb. 1 expulsion of the Arizona lawmaker. “That means a zero-tolerance policy.”
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque and David Klepper in Albany, New York contributed to this report.