Utah Democratic Party issues apology for its handling of sexual harassment complaints 4 years ago

The party decided to ‘re-examine’ its handling of complaints after allegations surfaced recently against members of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Protesters hold up signs and demonstrate as Chairman Peter Corroon speaks during the 2017 Utah State Democratic Party Organizing Convention at Weber State University in Ogden, June 17, 2017. They were protesting against the Democratic Party's response to the allegations against Rob Miller, which the party apologized for on Thursday.

In the wake of a scandal that led to the resignation of the Salt Lake County Republican Party chairman last weekend, the Utah Democratic Party is looking inward.

It issued a statement Thursday apologizing for the handling of complaints made four years ago against Rob Miller, then a candidate for party chair who was accused of kissing and hugging women without consent, stroking their hair without permission, pulling down his pants to show religious undergarments and turning a supposed job interview into an invitation to date him.

Miller, who denied the allegations and called them a false, last-minute “political ploy” by women who wanted to elect a female leader at the 2017 Utah Democratic Convention, dropped out of the race shortly afterward and left the party.

No action has ever been taken on the complaints against him.

But in light of the allegations against members of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, the Democratic Party said in a letter Thursday that it had decided to “re-examine the manner in which the party handled allegations of sexual harassment several years ago.”

“After examination, it is the belief of the Utah Democratic Party that the several women who came forward years ago with allegations were not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” the letter states. “The party did not give the women involved an opportunity to speak, and therefore failed to complete an investigation.”

Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant noted in the letter that he could not take responsibility for the actions of his predecessors. But he offered the women who had come forward both an apology and a commitment that the party would do more to make “our community a safer and more respectful place.”

“As an institution, the Utah Democratic Party has long stood for the protection of all people. In particular, Democrats have fought tirelessly for the rights of women in Utah, in the United States, and around the globe,” he said. “Nevertheless, recent events have reminded everyone — regardless of political persuasion — that allegations of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and acted upon swiftly.”

The letter follows Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman Scott Miller’s decision to step down after coming under fire for dismissing complaints from women in the party about an environment they describe as toxic.

More than half a dozen Republican women came forward in a story published in The Salt Lake Tribune to accuse the county GOP’s communications director Dave Robinson of harassment, body-shaming, name-calling and other inappropriate behavior. Scott Miller, who they say was aware of the issues and who has been unwavering in his support of Robinson, still plans to run for state party chair.

Calls for a Democratic investigation

The complaints against him and the response to them renewed attention to the ones made against Rob Miller. Those accusations came to light in a signed letter sent to former state Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon just weeks before the 2017 party convention.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Rob Miller, then a Utah Democratic Party chairman candidate, introduced himself during a town hall meeting for party leadership candidates at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, June 7, 2017. The Democratic Party is now apologizing for the way it handled complaints against Miller and offering to re-examine those procedures.

Nadia Mahallati, vice chair of the Utah Democratic Party, said she was glad to see “see so many Republicans come out in support of these women and unequivocally say, ‘What happened to them was wrong. We are going to make sure this doesn’t happen. If anybody else has a similar experience come forward and we’ll look into it.’”

“That’s never happened from the Democratic Party,” she said, “until this new statement that’s coming out.”

Mahallati, who was not a signatory to the original letter but has been pushing for the party to take action on the complaints, said she appreciated the apology from the party Thursday. But she said she was disappointed that it took the Republican Party handling something right for the Democratic Party to realize it had, in her view, done something wrong.

“The Democrats try to act like we are the party that supports women and the Republican Party has [former President Donald] Trump, who grabs women by the p----,” she said. “But clearly the Republicans felt the need to respond quickly, whereas this has dragged on nearly four years on the Democratic side.”

The Democratic Party has made no move to conduct an investigation into the complaints against Rob Miller, ruling that because he resigned as a member of the party, there was “no longer an intraparty dispute” and that the organization lacked jurisdiction to pursue any action. A scheduled trial was canceled at the request of the alleged victims over concerns about procedural errors.

Moving forward, Mahallati and Jennifer Miller-Smith, who was an original signatory to the letter, said they’d like to see the party back up its letter by retroactively conducting an investigation into the claims.

“We don’t have a predetermined punishment in mind,” Mahallati said. “We just want the procedure that the party has to be followed.”

An outside review conducted by the Democratic National Committee from the state of Washington found in 2019 that the party had not followed its own procedures in addressing the complaint and could have done more to resolve it. In the midst of party inaction, Rob Miller was able to launch a comeback campaign for party chair, before the party said it had not received his campaign papers on time and that he was therefore ineligible to run.

Miller-Smith said Thursday that she appreciated the “recent attention to this issue,” as well as the apology from the party, noting that it has been “painful” over the past few years “to see so many people in my party tell me that I didn’t matter and that my experiences didn’t count.”

“We’re not at closure yet,” she said. “But we’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m looking forward to what happens next.”

What are the ‘real facts’?

While some party members lauded the letter Thursday, Rocky Anderson, Rob Miller’s attorney, denounced it, arguing that it reflected “the violation of just fundamental fairness and due process that has infected this matter from the very beginning.”

“No one has established that there have been any victims of sexual harassment,” he said in an interview. “That’s drawing a conclusion before there’s been any way to make a determination.”

Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor, said he and Miller would like to see a trial move forward featuring impartial jurors and cross-examination of witnesses.

“There’s been a pattern of incredible injustice and deceit. And we — and I’m talking about Rob Miller and me, his lawyer — want the entire truth to come out,” he said. “But instead, all we’ve seen is this being treated in the media as if this fits some kind of pattern like all these other sex harassment cases we know about without anybody finding out what the real facts are.”

Merchant said in an interview that the party hasn’t made a determination on whether to move forward with an investigation or trial and is still deliberating its next steps.

The party noted in its letter several policy changes that have been made over the past few years — among them the adoption of new anti-harassment rules in 2018 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.

The Democrats also made a commitment in the letter Thursday to addressing “broad cultural issues involving harassment against all people and marginalized communities within our party and outside of it”; working to “swiftly address” any new allegations; and reaching out to previous victims to “apologize, understand and seek to remedy lingering concerns.”

“This is a problem the Republicans have, a problem the Democrats have; it’s a problem we all have as a community,” Merchant said. “And that’s not going to get solved unless we decide to admit it’s a problem and work on it.”