Utah Senate investigating ‘sexual misconduct’ allegations against Democrat Gene Davis

Salt Lake County Democratic Party has “temporarily suspended” longtime state Sen. Gene Davis from all party events in the county.

A former intern and campaign staffer of state Sen. Gene Davis accused the longtime lawmaker of sexual misconduct late Wednesday.

Sonia Weglinski, a 20-year-old University of Utah student, said there were multiple instances in which Davis touched her, making her feel uncomfortable, during the five months she worked with him.

The former 2022 legislative intern and campaign staffer said she resigned in late spring after telling Davis’ campaign manager, former Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chair Richard Jaramillo, about the alleged misconduct. She told The Salt Lake Tribune she waited until after the primary election, which Davis lost to Nate Blouin, to ensure her accusation wouldn’t be considered a political hit.

“I had to experience this without any accountability — prolong my experience — because I knew I wouldn’t be heard,” Weglinski told The Tribune.

Following the accusation, current and former Democratic officials said the party is not doing enough to prevent sexual harassment.

In 2021, another female staffer publicly accused Davis of inappropriate behavior but didn’t file a formal complaint and the party didn’t investigate the accusation.

Weglinski said she did not submit a formal complaint because of how the party has handled sexual harassment investigations in the past, and because she didn’t want her story to be “filtered through” the party.

The Utah Democratic Party said because it never received an official complaint it was unable to follow institutional processes to investigate the allegation. Davis also alleges he never knew there was a problem.

Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chair Eva Lopez told The Tribune in a statement that Davis has been “temporarily suspended … from participating in Salt Lake County Democratic Party events, committees, and any party-related activity.”

“It’s my duty as chair to take allegations into consideration, especially if there are patterns,” Lopez said in an interview. “I still have the ability, and the responsibility, to create a safe party for participation.”

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, announced Friday morning that the Senate is initiating an independent investigation into the allegations. Utah Senate minority leadership and the Utah House Democratic Caucus also issued statements supporting the investigation.

“Sexual harassment is wholly unacceptable, and while no complaint has been filed, we have confidence in the Legislature’s workplace discrimination and harassment policies and process to support employees and interns,” Utah Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne and Democratic Sens. Luz Escamilla and Jani Iwamoto said in the statement.

Weglinski first made her accusations against Davis public Wednesday evening in an Instagram post, alleging Davis rubbed her butt with a towel trying to get dirt off of it while she was taking photos and videos at his home this spring for his campaign.

Davis, who served as a Democrat in the Utah Senate since 1999, told The Tribune that he’s “flabbergasted” by the accusations, that he didn’t hear Weglinski say that she was uncomfortable and that there were other people around when the incident took place.

“As I recall, ... she got up and I pointed out that she had a lot of dirt, dust,” he said. “She had Levi’s on and there was gray, the dust was, so I went and I got a towel. I said, ‘Turn around here,’ and I slapped it with the towel and then gave her the towel and I said, ‘You may want to finish cleaning that off.’”

When asked by The Tribune if he received permission to help wipe the dust off, Davis said, “I don’t remember anything being said.”

Investigation gets dismissed

State and county party officials, including Jaramillo, knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against Davis as recently as this spring, according to interviews and emails obtained by The Tribune.

Multiple sources, including Davis, told The Tribune that the senator was investigated for a sexual misconduct-related complaint by the Salt Lake County Democratic Party in March. It’s unclear if that complaint was related to Weglinski.

Jaramillo said he didn’t have a copy of the complaint he could provide, but that it was dismissed. Lopez told The Tribune investigations are internal and information from them is only shared with individuals listed in the complaint.

While Davis said he was unaware of Weglinski’s sexual misconduct allegations, Jaramillo said he told Davis about her complaints, which she said she shared with him during a Zoom meeting. The former campaign manager added that he delivered Weglinkski’s resignation letter, which also included the allegation of misconduct, to Davis.

“My mental health has honestly plummeted from that point,” Weglinski told The Tribune, referring to her time working for Davis. “I really don’t like being vulnerable online, and posting that was really hard for me.”

A screenshot of an email from Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis to executive committee members that says the party has "talking points" about an Instagram post accusing Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, of "sexual misconduct".

On Thursday morning, around 16 hours after Weglinski’s initial Instagram post, Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis emailed members of the party’s “Full Executive Committee,” according to a copy of the email received by The Tribune.

“We have talking points prepared. If this gets to the media,” Lewis wrote in the two-sentence email.

In additional messages shared with The Tribune from the same email thread, Utah County Party Democratic Party Chair Katie Adams-Anderton argued that “We, UDP (Utah Democratic Party), are just as complacent in this as Sen. Davis. We have a historical problem with reprimanding those that commit these offenses.”

Other party leaders on the email chain said the 2019 policy went far enough in addressing sexual harassment in the party.

Ann Dent, who is an appointed member of the Utah Democratic Party executive committee, wrote in the email chain, “To say we have a ‘historical problem’ reprimanding those is not accurate. We have spent so much time implementing a harassment policy and following it to the T.”

Lewis later told executive committee members to refer all media requests to the party’s communications director. Efforts by The Tribune to contact Lewis about the misconduct allegation and “talking points” were not returned by the party chair.

A spokesperson for the Utah Democratic Party said it “takes claims of sexual harassment very seriously.”

“Due to the nature of our party’s governing documents, we cannot investigate claims without an official request for the Judicial Committee to launch an inquiry,” the spokesperson said, adding that once a complaint was filed the party would follow a process outlined in their own “Anti-Harassment Policies and Procedures.”

“Everyone should feel safe from sexual harassment, and that is why we believe a fair and thorough process for investigating these claims is so important,” the statement concludes.

Nadia Mahallati, the former vice chair of the Utah Democratic Party, said the sexual harassment policies in place at the Utah Democratic Party are not the problem — it’s current party officials’ failure to implement them.

“The party will likely claim they have no responsibility to do anything, especially because no formal complaint was written,” Mahallati, who helped write the party’s sexual harassment guidelines, told The Tribune. “Nothing is stopping the party from making a statement, including calling for resignation and denouncing support.”

Mahallati said she has distanced herself from the Utah Democratic Party. She told The Tribune that she feels she was forced out of party leadership in 2021 for speaking out against its handling of sexual harassment claims.

Following the initial publication of The Tribune’s story and Adams’ announcement of the Utah Senate investigation, Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis said in a statement Friday that she was “glad to see that the State Senate has begun the process of an independent investigation.”

Lewis added that she was confident the party’s Judicial Committee would “move forward swiftly with a full investigation of their own” if an “official complaint” was made.

History of accusations

This most recent accusation against Davis comes a year after former legislative staffer Elizabeth Converse alleged in a Facebook post that Davis behaved inappropriately at the Utah Capitol and on a legislative trip.

In her 2021 Facebook post, Converse alleged that while on a work trip in Chicago, Davis “put his arm around my waist, pulled me close into him, and said ‘I hear you like body shots. Ya know, I’ve got a bottle of tequila at home.’”

She said in the post that she declined to have her experiences included in a formal complaint against Davis, but had notified her superiors of the behavior.

In 2017, seven female Democrats sent a letter then-Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon allegeding that Rob Miller, who was running to be the new party chair, had kissed, hugged and acted inappropriately with women. Miller dismissed the accusation as a political attack before the Democratic state convention.

Last year, four years after the initial accusation, the Utah Democratic Party apologized for its handling of the complaints.

“The party did not give the women involved an opportunity to speak, and therefore failed to complete an investigation,” the party wrote last year.

Weglinski emphasized to The Tribune that in opening up about her experience, it was important to her to “bring awareness to the power dynamics that work against interns, especially in these prestigious government positions where we don’t feel comfortable coming forward about abuse. More things need to be done.”

Salt Lake Tribune politics editor Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.

A note to readers • Salt Lake Tribune reporter Emily Anderson Stern can be reached at eanderson@sltrib.com

Editor’s Note • This story was updated on Friday to include the announcement of the Utah Senate investigation, reaction from House Democrats and a new statement from the Utah Democratic Party.