Fellow lawmakers, lobbyists accuse Rep. Steve Lebsock of harassment

One lobbyist described sexual harassment at the Colorado State Capitol as a problem that “crosses party lines and has been happening for generations.”

District 34 Representative Steve Lebsock. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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District 34 Representative Steve Lebsock. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
State Rep. Steve Lebsock on the first day of the state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran has called on state Rep. Steve Lebsock to resign and temporarily removed him from the chairmanship of his committee after KUNC, a public radio station based in northern Colorado, reported on widespread accusations of sexual harassment against Lebsock.

Duran was joined by other top Democrats, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, herself a candidate for governor, state party chair Morgan Carroll, as well as the liberal organization ProgressNow Colorado, in saying the accusations against Lebsock were serious and he should not continue in public office.

The nine female lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members include Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who went on the record with political reporter Bente Birkeland to describe a pattern of unwanted advances, crude remarks and increasing aggression.

Rep. Faith Winter said Lebsock tried to get her to leave a bar with him in 2016. Both were attending a party to celebrate the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers, lobbyists, staff, the governor and members of the media attended the event a few blocks from the Capitol Building.

Winter alleges that Lebsock suggested sexual acts the two could do to make each other happy because it was the end of the legislative session and they deserved to be happy.

“Steve Lebsock’s behavior is egregious,” Winter said. “It’s wide[spread], and it’s time to — instead of isolating him — actually protect the victims.”

Winter, a Democrat, said she repeatedly refused Lebsock’s advances, but he wouldn’t stop and instead got angrier and more aggressive. She said he was standing over her and grabbing her elbow and she didn’t feel safe.

District 35 Representative Faith Winter. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
State Rep. Faith Winter on the first day of the legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. Winter said she warned Lebsock she would go public if she heard that he harassed other women. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Lebsock, a Thornton Democrat, is running for state treasurer. When Birkeland asked him to respond to the accusations, he said, “I’m not sure what you’re referencing at all.”

Later in the day, Lebsock released a statement on his campaign website that said he does not remember the incident in question and that Winter and any other accusers should submit a formal complaint to which he can respond. He apologized “for offending my colleague Faith Winter.”

“I have done nothing that can be described as criminal,” he wrote. “Nothing.”

I encourage you to read the entire piece, which is thoroughly reported. Lobbyists also described sexual misconduct on the part of Senate Republicans, but they did not want to name names on the record. Later in the day, two more women, one of them a lobbyist and the other a former aide to another state lawmaker, went on the record to the The Denver Post with their own stories about Lebsock.

One lobbyist told Birkeland:  “It’s a well known fact across the building that people like Rep. Lebsock and a number of Senate Republicans have all behaved in a way that would never be accepted in any other conventional workplace. It crosses party lines and has been happening for generations.”

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, posted on Facebook as part of the #metoo movement. She described experiencing sexual harassment before she was even old enough to go to school and said this behavior has continued throughout her life, even from colleagues in the legislature. As Esgar told Kara Mason at Pueblo Pulp, she was at an event in October when a man she described as “somebody she regularly works with” put his hand around her thigh and moved it upward.

District 46 Representative Daneya Esgar. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
State Rep. Daneya Esgar on the first day of the session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Esgar told the Pueblo Pulp they were at a crowded event, but no one else realized what was going on.

The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.

Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.

“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been a part of an incident.”

If women have previously been made to feel like they are the ones with the problem, Birkeland’s reporting has forced people in leadership positions in both parties to respond publicly to something that appears to have been well known privately.

Duran issued a statement in response to the report that said Lebsock should resign and pledged more action to change the environment at the Capitol. She said that as the person responsible for investigating complaints against lawmakers in her chamber, she is barred from commenting on complaints or even confirming or denying their existence.

However: “These numerous allegations would represent a major breach of decorum, and I would expect that Representative Lebsock would consider the impact of his actions on his colleagues and the public confidence in our institution, and do the right thing and resign,” Duran said. “There is no place for those types of actions at the legislature.”

Duran said she would be working to raise awareness of workplace harassment and “review the current process to determine whether it’s adequate to address situations of harassment or assault at the legislature, and make any changes needed.”

Duran said she “applauds the courage” of women who have spoken out about harassment and assault around the country.

“I want to reiterate that I have no tolerance for this behavior, and I am committed to doing my part to make the legislature a safe, respectful place for all,” she said.

Not long afterward, Duran said that she had temporarily removed Lebsock from his role as chairman of the House Local Government Committee.

In his statement, Lebsock did not directly address the calls to resign but said he would keep fighting for working class families.

Winter told Fox31’s Joe St. George that House leadership made sure female lawmakers did not have offices near Lebsock’s but the behavior continued, prompting her to speak out.

Asked if Duran’s actions today are enough, Winter said, “I don’t know what will be enough.”

“I don’t know when enough is enough. I don’t know what it will take for women in that building to feel safe. … I just want the behavior to end, and that’s when it is enough.”

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Cañon City, said he has not received any specific complaints about his members but that if he does so, he will take them seriously.

“We take any and all allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct very seriously,” he said in a statement. “The legislature has been proactive about heading-off potential problems by conducting in-depth sexual harassment awareness training for legislators and staff, and we have a formal process in place to address issues if they arise. At this time we have no active complaints on these issues, but we will continue to be proactive about educating lawmakers and staff and policing problems should they occur.”

Throughout the day, Democrats condemned Lebsock publicly and said he should resign. They avoided the “if true” formulation that you sometimes hear in response to accusations of sexual misconduct.

“These are serious allegations, and this type of behavior — corroborated by multiple people — cannot be tolerated in any workplace, much less from a public official. As such, Rep. Lebsock should resign,” Lynne said in an emailed statement.

 

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.