Utah Democratic Party did not follow its own procedures in handling sexual misconduct claim against a former chair candidate, external review finds

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Rob Miller, a Utah Democratic Party Chairman candidate introduces himself during a town hall meeting for all chairman candidtes at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday June 7, 2017. The meeting comes after party officials had a meeting about what to do with allegations about sexual harassment against Miller.

The Utah Democratic Party did not follow its own procedures in addressing complaints of sexual misconduct lodged against a candidate for party chairperson in 2017, according to an external report completed by the Democratic National Committee from the State of Washington.

The report, requested by the Democratic Party as part of a review of its harassment policies, does not address the merits of the claims against Rob Miller and instead focuses on whether the party followed its established policies in handling the complaints and makes suggestions for changes. A copy of the report, dated March 10, was shared with The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday.

“The party is aware that mistakes have been made with regard to the implementation of our anti-harassment policies and we are working to repair the process,” said Daisy Thomas, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, in a written statement. “I can’t talk about individual cases because we have an obligation of confidentiality that I will continue to respect.”

The complaints against Miller were first brought to the party in May 2017 outlined in a letter sent to former state Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon just weeks before the 2017 party convention. At the time, the party had no anti-harassment policy or procedures in place.

Seven female Democratic activists alleged Miller had kissed and hugged women without consent, stroked their hair without permission, pulled down his pants to show Mormon undergarments and turned one supposed job interview into a date invitation. After the signed letter became public, two male Democratic activists joined the seven women to say they had also witnessed inappropriate behavior by Miller.

“It feels incredibly validating in the most painful way,” Jennifer Miller-Smith, one of the original letter signers, said of the report’s findings on Saturday. “We were right and the state party was wrong almost every step of the way.”

Miller has denied all the allegations, calling them a false, last-minute “political ploy” by women who wanted to elect a female leader at the state Democratic Convention. Soon afterward, he dropped out of the race and left the party.

The party’s Standing Rules Committee ultimately oversaw the complaint, since the Judicial Committee had not properly been filled. It determined in June 2017 that because Miller was no longer a member of the party, there was “no longer an intra-party dispute” and that the Democrats lacked jurisdiction to pursue any action.

It’s unclear whether they explored any alternatives, “such as the general power of the Party to discipline its members, which do not disappear if the member attempts to resign,” the report states.

But the case was far from over.

In March 2018, the party drafted and adopted a set of procedures for handling harassment complaints — and the women re-filed their complaint. The party again found it could not take action, arguing that the complaint could not be pursued because of the 2017 decision and a continued belief it did not have jurisdiction over Miller.

“The Judicial Committee disposed of the 2018 Complaint without addressing the Complaint’s merits,” the report states. “... In our view, either the May 2017 Complaint or the 2018 Complaint could have been substantively addressed by the UDP consistent with its procedures.”

The party could have, for example, declined to accept Miller’s resignation and allow a trial move forward as if he had not submitted one, the Washington party argues. The committee could also have suspended consideration of the 2017 complaint and reactivated it if Miller had returned to party activities.

“I’m sure the Washington Democratic Party did their best with the information they had," Miller said Saturday in a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, “but I would point out that the narrative that I resigned to ‘escape’ accountability is a false narrative.”

Most recently, Miller spoke as a candidate at three county conventions at the beginning of the month in rural Utah with the intent to run again for chair before the party said it had not received his campaign paperwork and that he was therefore ineligible to campaign.

Jennifer Miller-Smith, one of the original letter signers, was present for all three of Miller’s speeches and told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time that she was disappointed the party hadn’t done more to prevent him from running.

“I am not surprised that Rob Miller attempted to run for state party chair,” she said. “I predicted this for months and months and there’s no reason, in fact, why he shouldn’t, because the state party has not moved forward on this issue.”

In addition to raising concerns about the Utah party’s procedures, the Washington Democrats also took issue with several elements of its anti-harassment policy.

For example, they said the policy provides no definition of what the party regards as harassment, simply providing “a skeleton of procedures to process a complaint alleging harassment.” That open question is, then, effectively determined by a case by case basis, the report says, and means there is no guidance to members about the general code of conduct they should aspire to.

The policy is also not clear as to its scope of application, the report states.

“If the UDP intends the policy to only be enforceable against active members of the UDP, it should say so expressly,” the report concludes. “By the same token, if the UDP intends that the policy not be enforceable against some members of the UDP, (e.g., two Party members interacting at a social function sponsored by their church), it should be clear as to the limits of its application.”

In an effort to close “loopholes” in its old policy, the party adopted at the end of last year new anti-harassment rules clarifying that anyone who has voluntarily resigned a position with the state or any county Democratic Party in Utah after a complaint has been filed and before it has been resolved can still be investigated.

Those who completed the report also said they were “greatly concerned” about the lack of communication participants received in the handling of their cases — an issue they said the party seems aware of and is working to improve.

Miller-Smith said she’s frustrated the party has not openly discussed the findings of the report since receiving it last month.

What needs to happen next, she said “is new party leadership. Let’s do an investigation.”

The Utah Democratic Party elections will take place June 22 at Park City High School. Candidates for party leader include current Chairwoman Thomas, Becky Moss, Jeff Merchent, Robert Comstock and Wayne Holland, a former three-term state party chairman.