Kansas lawmaker let off with warning for abusive behavior toward women, girls

TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) — A new Kansas legislator accused of abusive behavior before taking office received a written warning Thursday from a committee that investigated his conduct, and it directed him to accept a fellow lawmaker as a mentor.

The letter told state Representative Aaron Coleman, of Kansas City, Kansas, that allegations in a complaint from fellow Democratic lawmakers “are true” based on the evidence presented during a hearing last month. The House’s investigating committee said Coleman’s past conduct was “unfitting” for a lawmaker and that he and the House’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, must choose a mentor.

Sawyer and 12 other Democrats filed the complaint against the 20-year-old Coleman last month, hoping that the full House would remove him from office. But some Republicans in the GOP-controlled House were uneasy about overturning an election or disciplining a lawmaker for conduct before he or she took office. The letter of “warning and admonition” means Coleman won’t face being the first Kansas lawmaker ousted by colleagues unless his behavior prompts another complaint.

Coleman was accused of abusive behavior toward girls and young women and of telling an aide to Sawyer last year that he would physically harm the legislative leader. The complaint also cited a now-deleted tweet in November criticizing Democratic Governor Laura Kelly for not being progressive enough, that said, “People will realize one day when I call a hit out on you it’s real,” which Coleman acknowledged was inappropriate.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from reporters during a news conference, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Sawyer has refused to appoint Coleman to any House committees and said Thursday that he won’t until Coleman gets counseling and expresses remorse for his past behavior. Coleman, who is Jewish, issued a public statement earlier this week suggesting Sawyer and other top House Democrats were seeking “to suppress the Jewish Community,” an accusation Sawyer called “scurrilous.”

“I wish it had been stronger,” Sawyer, from Wichita, said of the committee’s letter to Coleman. “At least they make it clear — they put him on record — that his actions were unfitting of a legislator.”

Coleman declined to comment after the six-member investigating committee’s chair, Republican Representative John Barker, from Abilene, handed the letter to him in front of reporters outside Barker’s office at the Statehouse.

Representative John Barker chairs the special committee hearing over the possible removal of Representative Aaron Coleman, January 22, 2021, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

“Please heed the warning that’s given to you,” Barker told Coleman.

Representative Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, the top Democrat on the investigating committee, said to Coleman: “You’re under a microscope and I hope that you can rise to the occasion.”

The Kansas State Library has found no record of any state legislator being removed from office by the House or Senate, but in the past six years, lawmakers in at least four states have been expelled for misconduct.

Coleman narrowly ousted a veteran Democratic lawmaker in the August primary while running on a platform that included providing universal health coverage, ending college tuition, and legalizing marijuana. He’s since introduced bills to decriminalize illegal drug possession, increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $17.25 an hour over 10 years, and require lobbyists at the Statehouse to wear body cameras and record all conversations with lawmakers.

He won his primary race even after admitting on social media that he had circulated revenge porn as a “sick and troubled” middle school-aged boy. Later, facing only write-in candidates ahead of the November election, at least two other accusations of threatening or abusing girls or young women came to light.

Kansas state Representative Aaron Coleman sits for a portrait for the Legislature’s website, December 8, 2020, in a basement hallway of the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Coleman issued a statement Tuesday over his lack of committee assignments, accusing top House Democrats of “continuing Kansas’ anti-Semitic history by not allowing Jews to participate in the political process.”

“This anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, and unprecedented obstruction of the transfer of power must not be tolerated,” Coleman said.

Sawyer responded Wednesday that his refusal to give Coleman committee assignments is based only on a “pattern of abusive behavior.” Sawyer said by making “unfounded and untrue” accusations, Coleman again demonstrated that he is unfit for office.

Rabbi David Glickman, a senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, said while anti-Semitism is a real issue, it appears that Coleman is being denied committee assignments because of his behavior, “independent of his faith.”


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