Q&A: Bente Birkeland, on harassment scoops from the ‘dark underbelly’ of Colorado’s Capitol

IN RECENT WEEKS, public radio reporter Bente Birkeland has broken a string of stories about alleged sexual harassment by male lawmakers at the Colorado Capitol that has turned the statehouse upside down. Just as harassment allegations have generated national headlines and rocked Congress, Hollywood and the media business, Birkeland’s work in Colorado has been consequential on a smaller, local stage.

Birkeland, who is based at KUNC in northern Colorado and whose reporting is carried by a network of 15 local public radio stations, published her first big scoop on November 10: a collection of sexual harassment allegations against Steve Lebsock, a Democratic member of the Colorado House of Representatives who is also running for state treasurer. Birkeland’s exposé leaned on stories and comments from nine lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists, and an on-the-record first-hand account from a Democratic female lawmaker to detail a history of alleged harassment by Lebsock.

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The story had wide-ranging repercussions. Lebsock was swiftly stripped as chair of a committee, the governor called for his resignation, and follow-up reporting raised pressing questions about why Lebsock was elevated to chair when the House speaker knew of his behavior a year ago. State lawmakers are talking about reforming how the Capitol deals with harassment complaints. Since Birkeland’s bombshell, the story has expanded; The Denver Post published a thorough review of harassment at the state Capitol—an eight-contributor, 75-interview piece—and reported new disclosures. (For his part, Lebsock has apologized, but also said in a statement that some alleged incidents “have been significantly exaggerated” and others “are completely false.”)

Since last year, according to a USA Today Network analysis, “at least 41 lawmakers—nearly all men—in 21 states have been publicly accused by more than 100 people of some form of sexual misconduct or harassment.” Women have described an unseemly atmosphere to reporters in statehouses from Boston to Sacramento. Kentucky’s House Speaker resigned after The Courier Journal reported on a confidential settlement of harassment allegations by a female staffer; in Arizona, a powerful lawmaker was suspended after accusations became public in the local press; an Illinois senator lost his leadership post, as did a House member in Minnesota. In Ohio, two lawmakers stepped down and so did one in Tennessee. Florida’s budget chairman faces accusations of harassment by six women.

It’s mostly the approach you take. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean they’re going to talk to me. It’s very, very delicate.

The (Arizona) Capitol Times reported on harassment allegations brought by multiple women against state representative Don Shooter. The women “decided to publicly discuss the incidents after reporting from various news outlets, led by The New York Times and New Yorker, broke open sexual harassment claims from numerous women against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein,” according to the story.

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In Colorado, Birkeland, who has covered the Capitol for a decade, says her story about Lebsock came about organically, not from a tip or by following up on a social media posting. She also says she was as shocked as her listeners were to learn about what sources described to her as a pervasive sexualized culture under the gold dome in Denver—a statehouse not typically accustomed to salacious scandal.

Since her first report on Lebsock, Birkeland has broken similar stories detailing sexual harassment allegations directed at two GOP Colorado state senators, and updated her reporting with details of additional harassment complaints. CJR sat down with Birkeland to talk about her recent reporting; our conversation has been edited for clarity.

 

Your first report on Lebsock set off a firestorm. What sparked it?

I was reading national things about some other statehouses and just started thinking, “I wonder if there’s a problem here.” I actually didn’t think there would be a big problem since we have one of the highest percentages of female legislators in the nation and we have for several years. So I kind of thought that we’d be better. I was looking at states that don’t have term limits and where it seems really corrupt. I was kind of going into it like, “Oh, gosh, we’re not Illinois, we’re not Florida.” I wasn’t coming at it with someone specific in mind that I was trying to expose.

 

Where do you begin on such a sensitive story and going into it cold?

I just started talking to folks about the general culture and things just started coming up. For that first story everyone mentioned Lebsock to me—all these different people that I talked to independently talked about him. I started corroborating things on background. I did a lot of reporting before I ever reached Faith Winter [the lawmaker who eventually went on the record]. She wasn’t really on my radar at all for a long time. Maybe this worked to my benefit: I didn’t have specific people I was targeting based on some tip.

 

No one came at me for the story and what was in it. This reporting goes through an attorney, it’s very, very, very highly vetted. There cannot be any hole, any crack.

 

You’re one of the few full-time female reporters at the Capitol. I know you’re a great reporter before you’re a female reporter, but do you think gender worked to your advantage on a story like this?

I think I had an easier time showing empathy and maybe being someone [sources] could relate to.

It’s mostly the approach you take. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean they’re going to talk to me. It’s very, very delicate, and it’s how you come at the story and how you talk to the sources, how you go back to them, how you make them feel comfortable. They have to trust you. You go back 20 to 30 times getting more information and more details. I think I’m someone in the building that people respect. I’m not always out there breaking these big stories but people feel like I have integrity and they can trust me.

I don’t have enemies. I may not be best friends with everyone, but I have a very cordial, respectful relationship with everyone. It can help being a woman but men can definitely do this as well. No one has said they talked to me because I’m a woman. But you have to approach it the right way no matter who you are. You have to have good relationships or some level of respect.

 

It can be a tough out there for reporters these days. Any backlash to your work?

No one came at me for the story and what was in it. This reporting goes through an attorney, it’s very, very, very highly vetted. There cannot be any hole, any crack. Because if there’s any inconsistency or it’s not fully accurate or corroborated then that’s the focus versus the content.

 

Can you describe your first conversation with a source for this series of stories?

I was just like, “Hey, I’m doing a story on this overall issue. What do you think our scene is like here? Do you think it’s pretty good?”

The first person I talked to listed some names. I called the next person and said, “I’m hearing these names,” and they had a story about one of them. Then someone else had a story about that person, and then someone else. That was Lebsock. His name was one of the ones who just rose to the top.

I had not interviewed [Lebsock] before. I did not have a personal professional relationship with him, he wasn’t someone I talked to, he’s just not someone I had an occasion to interview. Initially I thought, Ugh, I wish this wasn’t all pointing to one person. That was just how the reporting unfolded.

ICYMI: The story the NYTimes, BuzzFeed didn’t want to publish

 

I told a lobbyist, ‘I wonder why no one has ever reported this,’ and she said, ‘No one has ever asked us before.’

 

How hard was it to get sources to go on the record?

Very hard. And it’s been way harder since that story broke.

 

That sounds counterintuitive to me.

People feel very uncomfortable and then they also just have personal and professional reasons for not wanting to be public. And so it hasn’t been easier.

The dynamics are different [for the most recent stories]. The Senate has a one-seat [Republican] majority and every seat is very powerful. There’s a lot at stake politically, there’s an election next year, there’s a governor’s race. So there’s a lot of forces bearing down on this. It’s been the dark, dark underbelly of the Capitol that I’ve been dealing with.

 

You’ve been here for a decade. The indication is this type of behavior has been going on for a long time. Do you feel like you missed a story for 10 years?

I told a lobbyist, “I wonder why no one has ever reported this,” and she said, “No one has ever asked us before.”

I’m not out drinking with lobbyists and being part of the gossip. I’m not as tied into the lobbyist world as maybe I should be just in general. And so that’s probably not something that really would have been on my radar. But, yeah, I mean it probably should have been done earlier, when there’s people not feeling safe and quitting and [involves] aides and interns and there’s not an objective process where you can even express a concern.

Let’s say you didn’t want to file a formal complaint. A lot of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds aren’t going to be comfortable saying, “Don’t look at me that way.” I definitely didn’t realize it was as pervasive as it is, especially for the younger people in the building. And there is that power dynamic. The system is not really set up to protect them when you have to go to legislative leaders.

 

You can demote someone, you can take away a committee chairmanship or something, but unless an alleged victim wants to be public and be in the media … people aren’t going to call for someone to resign. So that makes it harder for people to come forward. What are they going to get out of it?

 

Do you think this reporting could change the system?

I honestly don’t know.

It’s going to be tough because you have power dynamics and you have young people and others with a lot of power. You don’t have an independent HR. It does go through legislative leaders at some point. Even if they don’t investigate the complaint, it goes through them, and some folks have told me that’s problematic.

Unlike the private sector, you can’t fire someone. You can demote someone, you can take away a committee chairmanship or something, but unless an alleged victim wants to be public and be in the media … people aren’t going to call for someone to resign. So that makes it harder for people to come forward. What are they going to get out of it? I know politics can get in the way of a lot of things, so I hope that this issue rises above that and people will realize there’s a problem, across the political spectrum, and it’s not about calling out one party versus the other.

 

The legislature isn’t in session right now, the Capitol isn’t buzzing with people. But you’re known as the reporter who broke this story and are doing more on it. Are some people avoiding you around here?

I’m one of the only people in the building. There are staffers, but other than tourists it’s an extremely quiet time.

I walked into an office today and I did see several staffers did have this look of fear in their eyes, which is very weird for me because I feel like I’m typically one of the least-feared reporters in the building. That’s not the goal here, but it is about holding people accountable, and people are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. So that’s where the fear is coming from. If people are honest and forthright and acting with integrity there’s not going to be fear. So it’s not me. I was the vessel that some people came through, so it’s really not about me at all. But I don’t know how it’s going to impact my working relationships. These are my colleagues, too.

When I did interview the governor and I was just talking to him one-on-one, he seemed very appreciative of the work I was doing and he was encouraging. I was at a point where I was under a lot of stress and he was just kind of saying, Don’t be stressed out, that’s just going to slow you down. He was very encouraging, and it was nice to get that support.

 

You’re still on the harassment beat. Where does your reporting go from here?

I have so much stuff now that I can’t report that people have told me. I feel like this is the moment, if you’re ever going to get anyone to say anything. But still it’s extremely difficult. There are so many more stories I could report, but I don’t have them corroborated or people don’t want to go public. Despite the movement there’s still so much fear and we’re just skimming the surface.

It’s frustrating when you hear so many stories that you can’t corroborate because people don’t want to go public and you understand their reasoning and you’re empathetic to them. And it is frustrating because you want to hold people accountable and systems accountable, and you may not get to.

This job is very, very stressful. You’re on pins and needles if someone’s going to get back to you and you go back to people so many times. Are they going to give you more? You want to be honest and straightforward and not push people into doing something they don’t want to be doing, but you also have to be honest with, “I can’t report this then. Here are the facts I have, here’s what I can go public with. This has to be corroborated.” People have to understand the reporting process.

You can’t just throw out some anonymous person slinging mud with no accountability, no witnesses, no corroboration. So I don’t feel satisfied at all. I’m glad with the light we’ve shown on this issue so far, but I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel like I can sit back and say, “Wow, we’ve done our job.” So that’s really tough. If I don’t get some of these stories I’m chasing, I know I will always look back and wish I had.

ICYMI: NYTimes editor apologizes after article sparks outrage 

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.