Government & Politics

Sen. Paul LeVota of Independence booted from ethics panel after former interns allege harassment

Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, was removed from an ethics committee Thursday amid complaints by interns of sexual harassment.
Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, was removed from an ethics committee Thursday amid complaints by interns of sexual harassment. The ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri state Sen. Paul LeVota faced increasing pressure to resign Thursday in the wake of sexual harassment and retaliation allegations from two of his former interns.

The pressure came from fellow Democrats, lawmakers, the Jackson County prosecutor, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and even Jay Nixon — the governor and leader of LeVota’s party who called the allegations so deeply troubling that they “raise serious questions about his ability to serve his constituents.”

McCaskill, a Democrat who has waged a national campaign against sexual harassment on college campuses and in the military, echoed those remarks.

“Senator LeVota,” she said in a statement, “needs to seriously consider whether he can continue to serve.”

LeVota, who flatly denied any inappropriate behavior in an interview with The Star on Wednesday, was unavailable for comment Thursday. The 47-year-old senator, who faces a possible re-election race next year, is a former four-term House member who once served as the House minority leader.

Late Thursday afternoon, a group of female politicians that included Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Jackson County Legislator Crystal Williams and two Democratic lawmakers urged the General Assembly to “take all appropriate actions against any official responsible for sexual harassment.”

In a statement, the group added, “Senator LeVota must do what is needed to restore the public’s trust.”

The allegations against LeVota come just weeks after former House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, resigned from office in the wake of a sexting scandal with an intern. At least two schools, the University of Central Missouri and Missouri Southern State University, pulled interns out of Jefferson City this spring in the wake of concerns over inappropriate behavior by lawmakers.

Also Thursday, the state Senate booted LeVota from the ethics committee, and two senators, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Senate Democratic leader Joe Keaveny, issued statements that suggested more allegations had surfaced since the stories appeared.

“New information has come to light which bears further investigation by the Senate,” Dempsey said, adding that the information was being referred to the ethics panel.

Said Keaveny in a statement: “Numerous new allegations have been made. … Accusations like these should be treated in a manner that is fair and just to both the accused and the accuser. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their work environment.”

Consequently, the Democratic leader said, he agreed with Dempsey’s move to pull LeVota off the ethics committee that would study the charges.

On Wednesday, the Senate released an independent investigator’s report of a sexual harassment complaint against the senator, but offered no conclusions. A Star story quoted Alissa Hembree about her experiences as an intern for LeVota as a student at Central Missouri. During that time, she said, LeVota made sexual overtures to her and treated her badly in the office when she rejected him. She cut short her internship this spring, and her complaints later led to investigations at Central Missouri and the report issued by the Senate on Wednesday.

The report also included flat denials from LeVota.

In addition, The Star story quoted another former LeVota intern, Taylor Hirth. She had an internship in LeVota’s office while she was a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2010. She said the senator propositioned her, then treated her poorly when she turned him down.

A member of the Senate can be removed from office by a vote of two-thirds of the full chamber. Late Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said he was unsure exactly how an ethics investigation would proceed and whether the Senate had to be in session at the time of the review.

“I’m not sure how to get started,” Richard said.

Still, as Thursday came to a close, other lawmakers appeared to be stopping short of demanding LeVota’s resignation. Several said they hoped to see hard evidence of his misconduct, perhaps in the form of text messages, before they would demand his ouster. Hembree said her text messages were lost when she changed phones. LeVota declined to allow investigators to study his phone, citing privacy reasons.

In an earlier story, dozens of women who worked in and around Missouri state government told The Star that a culture of sexual harassment is pervasive in the Capitol.