Complaint against Rep. Aaron Coleman dismissed, as legislators favor informal discipline
A special House committee opted to informally disapprove of the conduct of Rep. Aaron Coleman, I-Kansas City, Kan., but dismissed a complaint filed against the controversial lawmaker that could have led to his expulsion from the Legislature.
Coleman has been disavowed by Democrats for a series of actions, including allegations of harassment, bullying and stalking, as well as alleged threats against House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita.
House Democrats have booted Coleman from their caucus and pushed for him to be dismissed from the Legislature after the 20-year-old defeated incumbent Rep. Stan Frownfelter in the August primary.
But none of the behavior took place since Coleman officially took office earlier this month, leaving Republican members concerned about disciplining a lawmaker for conduct that occurred before they arrived in Topeka.
"I don’t want to set a precedent," said Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chaired the committee investigating Coleman. "It has never been done before in Kansas history."
The committee eventually settled on publicly issuing a warning to Coleman, which is expected to outline expectations for future conduct and actions he must take going forward.
That could include therapy, seeking mentorship from colleagues within the Legislature and other corrective measures. Unlike expulsion or censure, an official act of disapproval, their action would not require the approval of the full House.
"I think this is a good compromise to help get us on the right track and to help Rep. Coleman … I think it gets us in the same place as if we took this to the [full] House of Representatives," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta.
Coleman said he would accept the letter and take whatever actions were suggested, but declined further comment after the hearing.
During the primary, Coleman admitted to cyberbullying and revenge porn while in middle school. An ex-girlfriend later came forward alleging he abused her, both physically and verbally, while the pair dated in 2019 and that the harassment continued until his Kansas House bid in 2020.
On Friday, Coleman termed the incident a "messy break up," but said he understood his actions were "inappropriate."
He has remained in hot water since winning the November general election, when Coleman beat out a write-in campaign from Frownfelter.
Coleman was the subject of a restraining order from Frownfelter's campaign manager, Brandie Armstrong, although the matter was settled and dropped by mutual agreement earlier this month.
And legislators from both parties objected to Coleman saying a "hit" needed to be taken out on Gov. Laura Kelly for her reluctance to support progressive policies. Coleman said that he meant to say "political hit" and admitted during the hearing that he should have used different wording.
Coleman apologized to the committee for his actions, saying that he was "embarrassed to be standing before you."
He pointed to the settlement with Armstrong, which both parties said they agreed to in the public interest, as a sign he was ready to move on.
"I understand that my words and my actions do not meet my own ideals that I have publicly set forth today," Coleman said.
Several women who had lodged allegations of harassment and abuse submitted testimony arguing for his expulsion. Sawyer was the only person aside from Coleman to testify before the committee Friday, where he outlined alleged harassment of his former chief-of-staff, Heather Scanlon.
Scanlon's written testimony also outlined a threat against Sawyer himself, a new allegation that Coleman denied.
Democrats on the committee appeared skeptical at times of Coleman's testimony and wanted to take stronger action.
Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, said she had concerns that there was a repeated pattern of behavior that could continue to pose security threats for members.
"Something has to be done, because otherwise this is a slap in the face of those who are his victims — and they are victims," Neighbor said. "So whatever we do has to have strong accountability measures."
Sawyer told reporters after the hearing that the action "essentially was a reprimand," although he echoed disappointment that stronger discipline was not taken.
"If similar behavior continues, we will file a complaint right away," he said. "He is going to have to be totally compliant from here on out."
Coleman announced he switched parties last week, declaring himself to be an independent. While House Democrats did not give him office space or committee assignments, Coleman has since been given an office, according to a social media post.
It would be up to the Democratic caucus as to whether Coleman would be welcome to return, Sawyer said, although he noted he was unsure whether Coleman himself would be interested in such a move.