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Politics & Government

Four and a half years of frustrations and delays come to an apparent end in Utah Democratic Party harassment investigation

An illustration of a magnifying glass over a paper with a 'D' letter in focus.
Renee Bright
/
KUER
“It seemed like they were just looking for reasons not to do it. And that they didn't care about the safety of people in their party,” said Jennifer Miller-Smith, one of the complainants.

A four and a half year long saga of investigations into sexual harassment complaints against a former Utah Democratic Party official appears to have come to a close. The party’s Judicial Committee has ruled on the cases of the two women who still wanted their claims investigated earlier this year. This year marked the third time the party had investigated those claims.

Jennifer Miller-Smith said she couldn’t reveal the result of her case because she signed a confidentiality agreement. But the other complainant, Elizabeth Converse, said she’s left the party because of how it handled her case and feels justified in breaking her confidentiality agreement.

The Judicial Committee ruled it couldn’t take action on her complaint because she didn’t provide evidence. Converse said the party made it too difficult to schedule an interview and didn’t tell her how to send in proof.

Converse, Miller-Smith, another complainant Sheryl Ginsberg and the accused, Rob Miller, all say the allegations have been mishandled over the past four years — from poor communication and delays to hostile interactions to a lack of due process. The party’s 2021 apology and commitment to resolving the case snowballed into a messy and frustrating investigation that, in Converse’s case, didn’t make a ruling on the facts of the case. Three of the complainants, as well as the accused, also reveal new details about how they believe the first two investigations were mishandled.

A spokesman for the Utah Democratic Party said they were unable to comment on anything related to the harassment allegations and investigations also due to “confidentiality clauses.”

A photo of a group of women sitting in a living room and talking.
Ivana Martinez
Jennifer Miller-Smith (right), Elizabeth Converse (center) and Sheryl Ginsberg (left) have been pursuing an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against a former Utah Democratic Party member for more than four years.

The First Investigations 

Converse and six other women first signed on to a letter in 2017 accusing Rob Miller of sexual harassment while he was running for the Utah Democratic Party chair, just weeks before the election.

Miller denies all the accusations.

“I still felt that the truth would set us free, but that didn't happen,” Miller said during an interview with KUER in early October. “Over the time of this, it's been very depressing.”

Two investigations by the party — in 2017 and 2018 — found they had no jurisdiction to make a determination on whether harassment occurred because Miller said he left the party shortly after the accusations went public.

“It seemed like they were just looking for reasons not to do it. And that they didn't care about the safety of people in their party.”
Jennifer Miller-Smith

The party set up an email address in 2017 where people could send in information about sexual harassment relating to Miller, whether it was behavior they witnessed or harassment they had experienced. The party’s 2021 report said no one who sent an email “volunteered to participate in this investigation.” KUER spoke to four people who sent in emails and they all said they had never been contacted for interviews or further information.

Miller said he was not interviewed in 2017, but was in 2018 during the second investigation.

He still tried to run for chair in 2019 after and attended some party events, although he said now, he no longer does.

Three of the original complainants who talked to KUER for this story — Converse, Miller-Smith and Sheryl Ginsberg — all said they were never interviewed as part of an investigation during 2017 or 2018.

“It's so frustrating,” Miller-Smith said. “It seemed like they were just looking for reasons not to do it. And that they didn't care about the safety of people in their party.”

In June 2018, one of the investigators emailed Converse to tell her they ruled they had no jurisdiction and she could appeal if she wanted. But the ruling hadn’t yet been voted on by the Executive Committee. Once the Executive Committee approved it in July 2018, the complainants were not informed of that decision and given a chance to appeal until December.

“They didn't actually tell us that they made a decision for months and we had to reach out to them,” Converse said.

Five of them would go on to appeal, and the Party set up a trial for early February 2019. Nadia Mahalatti, a party member who was acting as an advocate for the complainants, said she was concerned there wouldn’t be enough time for the people in charge of the trial to review evidence before it started. She said she told then-National Committeeman Charles Stormont she was concerned that “when it blows up, this is going to be in the news and it's going to look bad.”

Mahalatti said he told her, “‘If that's what happens, whoever talks to the news, they can just be kicked out [of the party] for violating confidentiality.”

“[I was] really shocked that that would be the solution, rather than just working to get to the actual issue, which was that this trial was going to be a disaster and unfair to everybody involved,” she said. “That seemed like the right course of action, not threatening people who felt like they had run out of options and then needed to go to the press.”

Stormont did not respond to a request for comment.

“Nobody was going to be satisfied unless you just jumped on board to crucify Rob Miller and convict him without any evidence or any due process."
Rocky Anderson

A few days before the trial was set to begin, they said they found out the Judicial Committee that had made the “no jurisdiction” ruling was not fully staffed and the parliamentarian confirmed in an email that if that was true, that meant the ruling was invalid. Four of the complainants — including Converse — dropped out of the trial because of that.

“They had lied to everybody involved in the case,” Converse said. “They had told us that this committee had been completely filled. It had not. They told us that everybody had been notified. They had not.”

Rob Miller’s former attorney Rocky Anderson, though, blames the complainants for cancelling the trial.

“They know they're going to be held to the truth because I'm going to cross-examine them,” he said.

Anderson also blamed them for dragging the process out for four years.

“Nobody was going to be satisfied unless you just jumped on board to crucify Rob Miller and convict him without any evidence or any due process,” he said.

The complainants said all they wanted was a full investigation, which they still haven’t gotten.

2021 Investigation

This year’s investigation was the third time the party has looked into the allegations against Miller. The Executive Committee voted to reject the findings of the previous investigations, and re-open the complaint in early April — just days after the Salt Lake Tribune reported on harassment allegations in the Salt Lake County Republican Party.

Converse said she was hopeful when the party apologized and re-opened the case. But that optimism quickly faded when she started to see the same pattern of behavior she’d seen over the previous four years.

“I let myself hope again and I shouldn't have,” she said. “It's a lot like an abusive relationship.”

Only Converse, Miller-Smith, and another complainant, Celina Milner, wanted to move forward with it. But Milner withdrew her complaint in early May, according to emails provided to KUER by Converse. Milner did not respond to a request for comment.

Miller-Smith is still an active member of the party and a member of the Executive Committee.

The Judicial Committee — which was in charge of the investigation — sent Converse a document outlining their decision in mid-September: “No Action.”

“I let myself hope again and I shouldn't have,” she said. “It's a lot like an abusive relationship.”
Elizabeth Converse

The document states that Converse didn’t “meet her burden of proof” because she didn’t do an interview with an investigator or send in any documents to further back up her claims.

“The Judicial Committee concludes it acted in as accommodating a manner as it possibly could. It attempted to do everything possible to create a welcoming, trustworthy environment,” the document reads.

Emails provided to KUER from Converse show she and a woman who was representing the compaintants asked for clarification on where to send in documents they had collected. Converse said they never received a response.

They also show Converse, along with the other remaining complainant, Miller-Smith, sent in detailed statements about their allegations and the chair of the Judicial Committee confirmed she received them.

Converse said one of the most frustrating parts was trying to schedule an interview with a volunteer investigator, Sarah Behrens, in early May. Converse had emailed her to ask that they schedule an interview via email instead of over the phone — which Behrens had suggested.

After going back and forth over email, Converse reached out to Behrens a few days later and disclosed that she wanted the scheduling in writing due to an auditory processing disability she has. The next morning, the chair of the party’s judiciary committee emailed Converse to let her know she needed to provide documentation of her disability and necessary accommodations by 5 p.m. that day — which she said she wasn’t able to do because of her doctor’s schedule.

That all culminated in a heated phone call between Converse and Behrens, in which Converse explained she had never been asked for documentation before when working for the party and Behrens repeated that she needed documentation. It escalated until Behrens ended the conversation and hung up.

A photo of Elizabeth Converse.
Ivana Martinez
The Judicial Committee ruled they couldn’t take action on Elizabeth Converse’s sexual harassment allegations because she didn’t do an interview with investigators or send in evidence. Converse said the committee made it too difficult to do that.

Sarah Behrens: You did not request accommodation.

Elizabeth Converse: Oh, my god,

SB: No, you requested that I send things in writing, there was nothing that said, I need accommodate a reasonable accommodation.

EC: Yes. And I understand that. And I'm not questioning that. But I didn't think that I would actually have to go to the point of exposing the fact that I am a disabled person, simply to get people to coordinate a schedule through email.

SB: I didn't think I'd have to go to this point to get a phone call. To be perfectly honest, Elizabeth

Converse said it felt like a continuation of a pattern she and the other complainants had seen play out over the past four years.

“It felt like every single time we tried to comply, every single time we tried to provide information, they would tell us that we were doing it wrong and doing it poorly,” Converse said.

She said she wasn’t able to get them the documentation by their deadline, so she assumed she wouldn’t be able to participate in interviews, and they never scheduled one.

Behrens volunteered as an investigator for the party and declined to comment for this story, citing confidentiality. According to emails provided by Converse, Behrens later resigned as an investigator. Judicial Committee Chair Jaquelyn Orton wrote in an email provided to KUER that it was due to “continued difficulty between certain claimants and Sarah Behrens.”

The Judicial Committee defended its response in a report Converse provided to KUER.

“Once the Judicial Committee knew about the disability, it felt it was under a duty to fully understand and provide whatever accomodations were necessary in order to help Complainant and protect itself from future claims of not providing the full range of accommodations Complainant needed,” the report said.

Converse said she doesn’t plan to appeal the decision, because she’s no longer a member of the party.

“They're never going to change,” she said. “They just don't care. It's easier for them to try to sweep it under the rug like they're doing again.”

More Roadblocks

Sheryl Ginsberg originally didn’t want to be a part of the 2021 investigation when the party decided to re-open it, but later changed her mind. She said she tried to rejoin the complaint in order to “to stand with the other women, but then they wouldn't let me do it in a sense,” she said.

Ginsberg said Orton told her she would have to re-file a separate complaint. Orton declined to comment because of confidentiality rules.

“It didn't make any sense to me,” Ginsberg said. “I wanted to get back on to be part of what the other two women were doing and to show support. I was being separated out with a different complaint. They already had a copy of my original complaint.”

Orton then emailed Ginsberg in July to ask her to come discuss her allegations at party headquarters with either the investigators or the full Judicial Committee — but it would’ve been an “informal presentation.”

Ginsberg said she declined the invitation.

“It wouldn't be an official filing, it would be like, ‘Come on in and have a coffee and we'll talk,’” she said. “I just didn't feel safe.”

Conflict of Interest?

Before the 2021 investigation began, Converse asked then-party Chair Jeff Merchant if Orton could be recused from the investigation due to a conflict of interest. Converse, Ginsberg and Miller-Smith said they’d heard Orton and Miller are friends. Miller said he’s not close with Orton and she has been fair and balanced while overseeing the investigation this year.

“We're friendly. I mean, I was friends with Bill [Orton, Jacquelyn’s late husband],” Miller said.

Converse also said Orton made comments about the case to her at a wedding a few years back.

“Jackie, at a mutual friend's wedding, pulled me aside … and said that she believed me — she just didn't believe the other women,” Converse said. “And to say that openly and then to be appointed to be in charge of the actual process to handle this case was kind of shocking to me.”

After the publication of this story, Jacquelyn Orton reached out to KUER. She said this conversation never happened, that she had not read all of the claimants’ statements prior to 2021, nor passed judgement on their validity.

After the conflict-of-interest request was made, Orton became one of the investigators when Behrens quit following her contentious phone call with Converse.

Gathering Evidence

In addition to the contentious back and forth between Converse, Behrens and Orton about scheduling an interview, the Judicial Committee listed in their final report several instances in which they tried to get evidence from Converse.

"When you don't protect half of the population, how do you expect that population to support you?”
Elizabeth Converse

“The Complainant was given ample opportunity to provide evidence,” the report says.

Converse said she tried her best to provide the requested evidence. The Judicial Committee listed 10 times they tried to solicit evidence.

Converse and other complainants did send in detailed statements about their allegations when asked the first time, according to the committee report and emails provided by Converse. The other nine instances refer to the back-and-forth over scheduling an interview, as well as a few times where evidence was requested and Converse replied with a clarifying question. She said she never got a response to those inquiries.

Rob Miller, the accused, said he was not asked to participate in interviews for the 2021 investigation because he refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

“I would not sign it because when am I getting my confidentiality back?” he said. “From the very beginning, it was a leaked letter to stop the campaign. … Why would I sign something that limits me from telling the truth to the public? I'm done.”

The original complaint letter was leaked to the media back in 2017 just weeks before the election for party chair that Miller was running in.

Anderson, Miller’s former attorney, did send in a more than 100-page document directly to Orton on July 18 with evidence and arguments refuting the harassment claims.

What’s Next?

Converse signed a confidentiality agreement but said she decided to provide documentation and talk to KUER because, “While we have stayed quiet in an attempt to protect the party, the party has done nothing to protect us, nothing. And I'm not going to protect them any longer. There's no point.”

She said she’s no longer a member of the party and won’t appeal the 2021 “No Action” ruling, even though they still haven’t made a ruling on the facts of the case.

“This is why we lose [elections,]” she said. “Democrats aren't willing to do the hard work. When you don't protect half of the population, how do you expect that population to support you?”

Updated: October 12, 2021 at 9:49 PM MDT
This story has been updated with a response from Jacquelyn Orton regarding a conversation Elizabeth Converse said took place between the two of them.
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