Government & Politics

Interns accuse Sen. Paul LeVota of Independence of sexual harassment and retaliation

Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, was the subject of a report issued by a Missouri Senate panel on Wednesday.
Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, was the subject of a report issued by a Missouri Senate panel on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Alissa Hembree said she was tired of the way state Sen. Paul LeVota talked about her hair, her body and the way she dressed.

So in February, in the midst of her internship in the Independence Democrat’s Capitol office, the University of Central Missouri senior cut off 22 inches of her hair in an effort to “seem more invisible” and to be taken more seriously. She quit wearing dresses and heels, too, and turned to pants and Oxfords.

She says LeVota bombarded her with inappropriate text messages, made explicit requests for sex and retaliated against her for rebuffing unwanted advances.

All those allegations are laid out in a Senate-financed investigation released Wednesday. Hembree is not named in the report, but she went public Wednesday in an interview with The Star.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, released the report, which issues no conclusion or call for action. He referred “all further inquiries” to LeVota.

LeVota denies any wrongdoing, saying flatly that he never acted inappropriately. Hembree’s story is similar to that of another former intern from LeVota’s time in the House who decided to speak up now after five years of silence. LeVota also denied any inappropriate treatment of that woman.

In recent weeks, dozens of women — former and current interns, staff, lobbyists and lawmakers from both parties — have told The Star that a culture of sexual harassment is pervasive in the Missouri Capitol.

Hembree’s internship was supposed to last five months. She barely made it to two. When lawmakers went home for spring break in March, she’d had enough. She decided not to return to the state Capitol, and her college adviser sent LeVota’s office an email saying she’d be staying in Warrensburg for the remainder of the legislative session.

Another Central Missouri student — a man — also ended his internship in LeVota’s office at that time.

Hembree filed a complaint with the school, which, in turn, launched an investigation into possible violations of Title IX — the federal law that protects students in federally funded education programs from harassment and discrimination based on gender.

The Missouri Senate quickly followed suit, hiring a private attorney to investigate the allegations.

“I’m shocked that he lied the way he did,” Hembree said Wednesday. “It’s a flat-out lie. He’s telling people I never went to his house (in Jefferson City). I remember the locks, the doors, the layout of his home. He’s saying I never went there.”

In the interview, she said she became so nervous about working in LeVota’s office that she at times hid out in other lawmakers’ offices to avoid the possibility of more face time with the senator. On Mondays, as she was returning to the Capitol for another week, she said she became so anxious that she sometimes pulled her car off the highway and vomited.

“I hated it so much at the end,” she said.

LeVota countered with a blanket denial.

“At no time did I act inappropriately, through text messages or in person, with this intern or anyone else,” he said in a statement. “I never asked her to do anything inappropriate; I never contacted her after hours, I never made sexual advances toward her, and neither I nor anyone on my staff ever retaliated against her in any way. …

“If there had been any evidence to support these allegations, the Senate would have acted swiftly to impose appropriate actions.”

The report said Humbree said she “experienced a pattern of sexual harassment, including unwelcome text messages and explicit requests for sexual activity.” The report said that when she reported the solicitations to LeVota’s chief of staff she believed she “was subject to retaliation” and basically snubbed in the office.

Those text messages “were not overtly sexual in nature,” she told investigators. She also said she no longer had the text messages, partly because she changed phones.

LeVota also didn’t have any text messages available for investigators to review. But “he declined to have a forensic examination of his telephone, citing privacy concerns about personal information on his telephone,” the report said.

He told investigators he sent group text messages to interns about the work of his office and inquired about the intern’s well-being when she experienced an illness during her internship.

The report comes after House Speaker John Diehl resigned from the General Assembly after The Star revealed a series of sexually charged texts he exchanged with another legislative intern that prompted Missouri Southern State University to call all of its interns back to Joplin earlier this year.

Other witnesses in the LeVota investigation, the report said, observed text messages arriving on the intern’s phone from the lawmaker during non-work hours.

Hembree told investigators she twice received “unwelcome requests for sexual activity” from LeVota on Jan. 26.

When she attended a lobbyist event in Jefferson City that evening, she told investigators, LeVota encouraged her to come to his duplex in that city rather than drive to Fulton, where she was living, after having had a few drinks. The two drove separately to LeVota’s duplex, the report states, and she said LeVota said, “If you want to sleep with me tonight, I won’t tell you no.”

She told investigators that she turned him down and that LeVota apologized but “continued acting in a flirtatious manner.”

She said LeVota also made derogatory comments about the intern’s boyfriend and joked about his anatomy. She said she slept on LeVota’s couch that evening.

“It was uncomfortable because I didn’t want to. I did feel a lot of pressure,” Hembree said in the interview. “He made a lot of comments about me drinking and driving. He insisted that I shouldn’t (drive home), and I caved after awhile.”

Hembree said she made LeVota promise that he would not make her feel uncomfortable.

“I have a daughter your age, so you can trust me,” she quoted LeVota as saying. “I’m one of the good guys.”

The report says there was no physical contact between the two that night.

LeVota denied to investigators that the intern was ever at his duplex and told them he never made sexual advances.

After that January evening, the intern told investigators, she was shunned by LeVota and excluded from projects in the office.

The report said LeVota’s chief of staff heard accounts from the intern at the time that would seem to fit with what she later told investigators.

Investigators also said there were conflicting accounts of her internship performance. A fellow intern reported observing LeVota treating her poorly.

Hembree isn’t the only former LeVota intern making allegations about his behavior.

Taylor Hirth interned for LeVota in 2010 when he was House minority floor leader, the highest ranking Democrat in the House. She paints an almost identical picture of unwelcome propositions from LeVota through a barrage of late-night text messages.

“He got really aggressive about it, but not in a mean way,” said Hirth, who was 24 at the time of her internship. “He just wouldn’t let up.”

Hirth said she was originally supposed to intern for another Democratic lawmaker, but when LeVota met her at an event at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he insisted she work for him instead.

“At the beginning of session, he was mildly flirtatious,” Hirth said. Then one evening, things changed. Hirth said LeVota sent her a text inviting her over to his Jefferson City home for drinks.

“I was like, ‘Well who all is over there?’ He said, ‘It’s just me.’ I told him I’m not going to come over and drink at your house if it’s just you,” Hirth told The Star.

Hirth shared screenshots of that particular text exchange with The Star. That January night in 2010, Hirth told LeVota that she makes it a point not to drink alone with married men.

He quickly responded.

“Good rule,” LeVota texted. “Let’s say this. You are smoking & funny & smart, all around cool chick. As far as ‘the moves,’ I’m in if you are. If not, remember that I think you’re a cool chick, I like you, & we can be friends. Got it?”

After a couple of innocuous texts, LeVota tried again.

“So you have a rule,” he texted. “That’s pretty much iron clad.”

She responded, “Yessiree.”

“Well if there ever is a loop hole, don’t be so hard on yourself,” he texted back.

Hirth said the exchange opened her eyes.

“That was when it became apparent that it wasn’t innocent and it was only going to get worse if I continued to ignore it,” she said.

She refused his advances, she said, but tried to do it nicely.

But LeVota persisted, she said. Hirth said one day she told LeVota, “‘Look, you’re married. I’m not interested. This isn’t going to happen.’ Then I stopped responding to his (text) messages.”

After that, Hirth said he was cold and distant.

“It really struck at my confidence,” she said. “He looked at me like I’m this thing he can toy with. This conquest. This prey. Never someone who could ever be an equal.”

LeVota denied ever inviting Hirth over to his apartment.

“I don’t remember anything about that, and I did not do that,” he said in an interview with The Star on Wednesday. “I don’t remember that text. And I don’t think that that’s inappropriate, to tell someone that they’re cool.”

LeVota lives in Independence with his wife and two daughters. He was first elected to the Missouri House in 2002. He was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2012 and is eligible for re-election next year.

Another LeVota intern tells of a much more positive experience.

Shelby Eagan also interned for LeVota in 2010. She was 21 at the time, and says she got the internship because LeVota and her father were friends. She says LeVota was very protective of her and treated her respectfully.

“Of course, there were guys who saw me as a fresh piece of meat,” Eagan said. “But I always felt like I had someone watching out for me and making sure I wasn’t messed with.”

That wasn’t Hembree’s experience. She said she’d work in the Capitol again if she could work on meaningful legislation and avoid a similar situation like she had with LeVota.

“The comments and the sexualization of women … are so common that people don’t even take it into account that it’s there,” she said. “It’s such an engrained part of the culture in that building.”

The Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this report.

Related stories from Kansas City Star