Kansas House committee opts against formal consequences for maligned representative

Panel of legislators will instead craft a letter admonishing Rep. Aaron Coleman for his actions

By: - January 22, 2021 5:56 pm

Rep. Aaron Coleman, I-Kansas City, avoided formal consequences Friday for his actions toward women. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer filed a complaint on behalf of members of the Democratic party on the first day of the legislative session. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Members of a House special committee charged with investigating a complaint filed against Rep. Aaron Coleman decided Friday to dismiss the case against the heavily criticized freshman legislator.

The committee instead opted unanimously to craft a public, informal letter admonishing Coleman for his actions. The letter would include recommendations for services he could pursue to aid with what multiple Democratic legislators described as a pattern of abuse and outline expectations of proper conduct as a legislator.

Coleman left the Democratic party after leaders refused to welcome him into the caucus. The 20-year-old from Kansas City has come under fire for his improper behavior toward several women, including the posting of revenge porn, harassment, stalking and bullying. During the hearing, Coleman admitted to past transgressions and asked the special committee to look past the errors he made before he was sworn in as a state representative.

Despite dismissing the complaints, Rep. John Barker, a Republican from Abilene and chairman of the Special Investigating Committee, told Coleman to tread carefully moving forward as future transgressions could lead to a new complaint.

“People’s eyes are upon you,” Barker said. “Your conduct should be, going forward, probably the best freshman out there, and I would hope that you would take this letter of warning seriously.”

The panel’s options for action included a recommendation of a reprimand, censorship or expulsion from the House — which would have required a two-thirds majority vote from the full chamber — or the chosen path, dismissal of the case. The three Democrats on the committee expressed a preference for stronger action against Coleman.

Barker and fellow Republican lawmakers said they preferred to reach a conclusion among committee members rather than punish Coleman for his actions before taking office.

“I don’t want to set a precedent,” Barker said. “It has never been done before in Kansas history.”

Rather than split the vote 3-3, equivalent to taking no action against Coleman, Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, reluctantly withdrew his motion to ensure some form of repercussion.

The committee settled on the letter, which may include recommendations for therapy, an assigned mentor and other measures to ensure Coleman carries himself appropriately. Coleman told the panel he would accept and cooperate fully with any recommendations asked of him.

“I think this is a good compromise to help us on the right track and to help Rep. Coleman take positive steps,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta. “I think it actually does end up in the same place as it would if we took this to the House of Representatives.”

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, and Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, joined Highberger in pushing for stronger action.

Questioning Coleman about a previous comment in which he said a “hit” needed to be made on Gov. Laura Kelly for not supporting progressive policies, Neighbor told Coleman his apologies are not necessarily sufficient.

“Apologizing is one thing, but understanding what the language is and what the consequences are sometimes are two different things,” Neighbor said.

In written testimony, Coleman’s ex-girlfriend detailed traumatic experiences she says she suffered during her relationship with Coleman. In one instance, she says Coleman threatened that he could rape her if he wanted, although he did not.

“It took less than two months for me to realize that Aaron Coleman was somebody that made me feel bad about myself, unsafe, and uncomfortable. But the things he said to me are stuck in my head forever,” she said, adding, “These are not things someone who has political power should say or do. These are not things a mentally stable person would say or do. Aaron Coleman is not fit for a political position.”

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, testifies Friday before the Special Investigative Committee regarding Rep. Aaron Coleman’s alleged harassment of his former chief of staff. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Coleman was elected last year after defeating incumbent Democratic Rep. Stan Frownfelter in the August primary and warding off a write-in campaign in the general election.

Since the complaints were filed, new complaints have come to light via written testimony from Heather Scanlon, former chief of staff for House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita.

Scanlon alleged that, following a post from the Kansas House Democratic Twitter page, Coleman launched into “a raging diatribe” threatening to harm Sawyer, among other actions. She said following his victory in the November election, she received a text from Coleman demanding an apology “or else.”

Sawyer, the only person to testify before the committee aside from Coleman, outlined the alleged harassment against his staff member. He also voiced disappointment with the result of the hearing.

“If similar behavior continues, we will file a complaint right away,” Sawyer said. “He is going to have to be totally compliant from here on out. … This is it. I think the committee made that pretty clear.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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