Bente Birkeland

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.

 

An outside consultant, who studied workplace culture at the state Capitol, found nearly half of the roughly 500 people surveyed had witnessed sexist and/or seriously disrespectful behavior. A third said they had experienced sexual harassment first-hand. And nearly 90 percent of those who say they were harassed didn’t speak out or file a complaint. Many said they feared retaliation from their accusers and others.

Those findings, by the Investigations Law Group, mirror what we’ve discovered in almost six months of reporting on this issue.

A 235-page report from an outside consultant says the culture at Colorado’s state capitol is unhealthy -- and the system in place to detect and deter harassment is not working. It contains about two dozen recommendations on how to improve the culture and strengthen policies to deter workplace harassment – which means legislative leaders have a lot to wade through and some tough decisions ahead.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of the Associated Press and John Frank with the Denver Post about how lawmakers might use the information to make changes.

A more than 200-page report from the Denver-based Investigations Law Group reaffirms that there are systemic cultural and sexual harassment problems at the Colorado state Capitol.

Our reporting first uncovered the problems in November, which has led to multiple allegations and investigations into a handful of lawmakers and the historic expulsion of former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock.  

For the third time in state history, Colorado lawmakers voted on whether or not to expel one of their peers. The effort failed. In a battle over #MeToo, respectfulness, fairness and principles, Republicans defeated a Democratic resolution to oust Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, despite an independent investigation that found allegations of sexual harassment against him credible.

The 17-17 vote went along party lines with one exception: Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, voted for expulsion. Sen. Cheri Jahn, an unaffiliated member, voted with Republicans. Baumgardner abstained.

For the second time in a month, Colorado lawmakers are debating whether to eject one of their own amid allegations of sexual harassment. First, it was Steve Lebsock, the former Democratic representative, who was ousted overwhelmingly in the first House vote of its kind in more than a century. At this moment, in an unexpected move, the Senate is poised to begin similar proceedings over Randy Baumgardner, a Republican senator.

Passing a balanced budget is the only thing Colorado lawmakers are required to do during the annual 120-day legislative session. A strong economy means there is more general fund money to spend on priority items including roads and schools. The ‘long bill’ as its known has cleared the Democratic-controlled House and now goes to the Senate which is controlled by Republicans.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland breaks down what’s in the budget with reporters Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal.

Senate President Kevin Grantham is under scrutiny  for his handling of harassment complaints. Critics say he’s been inconsistent, even partisan, and they question his ability to be fair and help make the Capitol’s culture more professional.

For the second year in a row, Colorado lawmakers are working on a way to provide funding for the states roadways. In 2017 it was a proposed tax measure that failed. This time around it’s a bonding plan that would lock the state into annual payments coming from the general fund. This is where Democrats and Republicans disagree on the plan.

Lucia Guzman said she had been thinking about her decision to step down as Colorado’s Senate minority leader for weeks. Finally, early on Thursday morning, the Democrat walked onto the Senate floor. It was quiet, mostly empty and she said she removed her name placard from her prominent desk.

“On the one hand it felt like failure and loss, but on the other hand it felt like success and empowerment,” said Guzman.

It has been nearly two months since an independent investigator with the Employer’s Council concluded and found the accuser to be credible in allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Jack Tate.

Weeks later, there have been no consequences as a result and the accuser said she wants to know why.

So she says she now wants to make the investigator’s report public (PDF), which is allowed under the General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy, in hopes it will spur action.

Colorado’s public pension system needs more money to remain viable. The Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA, is the retirement benefit for teachers and other public employees. Right now, it’s only 58 percent funded. Senate Bill 200 is starting its journey through the legislature and it will need bipartisan support if it is going to pass.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal about the bill, and what’s at stake.

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik said she has filed a formal workplace sexual harassment complaint against a fellow senator, Daniel Kagan, alleging that he was inside a restroom designated for female legislators and staff multiple times.

As word came this week that yet another round of layoffs were planned for The Denver Post's newsroom, lawmakers at the Capitol worried about what the future would look like with less news. Among those concerned about the fate of news is Rep. Larry Liston, who for years has clipped articles from newspapers to keep track of what's going on. 

More than 100 Senate staff, aides and interns have been warned against speaking to journalists about workplace issues, including sexual harassment, and the trainings aimed at preventing it.

At issue are two emails obtained from Senate sources that say it is a violation of the chamber's policies for workers to grant interviews to reporters. A third email, sent directly to us by the top Senate administrator, asked us to tell members of other news organizations not to approach aides and interns for interviews, but rather to speak with communications secretaries. We didn't act on that request because it's not our role to direct the reporting of other news organizations. 

Senate Republicans have passed a bill that would allow Coloradans who already have a handgun to conceal carry without a permit. It passed along party lines and will soon be debated in the Democratic-controlled House where it’s future is more uncertain.

Democrats are harshly criticizing state Senate President Kevin Grantham, saying he’s preventing lawmakers accused of sexual harassment from being held accountable. Grantham has countered by saying that sexual harassment is a “cancer” that must be rooted out and that any lawmaker convicted of a crime should be expelled. But that answer hasn't satisfied Democrats.

In a nonbinding straw poll, Democrats gave Cary Kennedy a decisive victory in caucuses for Colorado governor. She took 50 percent of the vote. Congressman Jared Polis came in second with 33 percent and former state senator Mike Johnston finished a distant third with 8 percent.

Colorado lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recently voted out one of their own. The decision to expel Representative Steve Lebsock, (D) came after an independent report found the allegations of sexual harassment brought forth by five women to be credible.

Bente Birkeland discussed the outcome of the vote with Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Marianne Goodland with Colorado Politics, specifically about what swayed some lawmakers, and how that could impact what’s happening in the Senate where three lawmakers have also been investigated for sexual harassment.

The leader of Colorado’s Senate said that last week’s historic decision in the House to expel a legislator amid sexual harassment allegations would have no bearing on how similar cases in the Senate are resolved. Senate President Kevin Grantham said the House made a tough decision to remove a fellow legislator from the Capitol.

It was a dramatic and at times tearful day at Colorado’s Capitol as member after member of the House made statements for and against the removal of a fellow legislator. In the end, the chamber voted 52-9 to oust Rep. Steve Lebsock, who had been accused by five women of sexual harassment and retaliation. Those allegations were “more likely than not” to have occurred, an investigation concluded early this week.

(Updated at 4:47 p.m.) Saying a report has confirmed multiple allegations of sexual harassment, Democrats in Colorado’s House of Representatives have moved to expel one of their own -- Rep. Steve Lebsock. It is an unprecedented move as Senate Republicans who have faced confirmed reports of sexual harassment at the Capitol continue to serve.

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 independent Employers Council, which has been tasked with investigating several state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment, is defending its work. The lawmakers -- accused of misconduct by colleagues, Capitol workers, interns and aides -- have criticized the council’s efforts to get to the bottom of allegations. Some have even raised the question of bias. Amid this, and efforts to oust a lawmaker over allegations, two investigations in the Senate are now being handled by a new firm that declined to comment on its methods.

Lawmakers inside the capitol are grappling with how to put more money into transportation, a priority for both parties. Now, the issue will be debated statewide because of a group of statewide ballot proposals. Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland talked to Brian Eason with the Denver Post and Marianne Goodland with Colorado Politics about the chances of passage – and what it means for the current legislative session.

Colorado’s Capitol, like 28 other statehouses across the country, has security checkpoints at public entrances. There are metal detectors that visitors and lobbyists must pass through under the watchful eyes of State Patrol officers, who are there to protect everyone in the building and keep illegal guns and other weapons out. But for some, the security is too much.

A complaint alleging that Sen. Jack Tate harassed a woman at the state Capitol has been found credible. The woman, a former intern, alleged that Tate flirted with her and touched her in an elevator in an unwelcome manner during the 2017 legislative session. The former intern was 18 years old at the time, and has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. 

Sen. Randy Baumgardner, who is facing calls to resign in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, has been named in a new complaint at the state Capitol. The accuser, a man who worked as a non-partisan Senate staffer in 2016, alleges that Baumgardner created an offensive and hostile work environment.

Colorado lawmakers are working on several high priority issues including human trafficking, updating a driver’s license program for undocumented immigrants and responding to the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Jesse Aaron Paul of the Denver Post and Marianne Goodland with ColoradoPolitics about the issues they are covering under the gold dome.

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, is the latest lawmaker to be named publicly in allegations of sexual misconduct.

Funding for Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission and the Division of Civil Rights is uncertain following a vote in the legislature Thursday, Feb. 8. The Joint Budget Committee deadlocked in a 3-3 vote – which effectively shuts off funding to the agencies starting July 1. Gov. John Hickenlooper criticized the decision, saying it “sends the wrong message to Coloradans and businesses looking to move here.”

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Marianne Goodland of Colorado Politics and Ed Sealover of the Denver Business Journal about the politics behind the vote, and how it may impact other business at the capitol.

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