Panel finds Rep. Aaron Coleman's behavior to be 'unfitting' but cannot issue requirements

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A House committee told Rep. Aaron Coleman, D-Kansas City, that his behavior was "unfitting for a member of the Kansas House of Representatives" but could not mandate any corrective actions.

A House committee charged with investigating Rep. Aaron Coleman, D-Kansas City, Kan., told the controversial lawmaker in a letter Thursday that his behavior, which included allegations of harassment, bullying and stalking, was "unfitting for a member of the Kansas House of Representatives."

But the panel said they cannot require Coleman to take corrective steps after dismissing charges against him last month on the grounds that the actions took place before assuming office.

Coleman has been disavowed by Democrats, with House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, and others filing the complaint and pushing for him to be dismissed from the Legislature.

While the petition was dismissed, the committee still opted to issue a formal warning, which was delivered Thursday.

Its contents underscored that the committee cannot take stiffer action, even though there was "sufficient evidence" that charges against him appeared to be true.

"Basically, what we're saying here is you had some very bad conduct prior to becoming a member of the House of Representatives," said Rep. John Barker, R-Abiline, who chaired the panel charged with investigating Coleman. "Now you are a member of the Kansas House of Representatives and we expect you to raise your level and adhere to our rules and procedures."

Coleman will be required to be mentored by another House member, although the select committee investigating him will not be able to enforce the directive. Instead, Sawyer will be charged with determining what that process looks like.

Other potential requirements, such as mandated therapy, can't be proposed, despite being discussed during the hearing. 

This disappointed Democrats on the committee, including Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, who said she wanted more to be demanded of Coleman.

"It is not strongly worded at all," she said. "It doesn't give the kind of recommendations that we wanted." 

During the August partisan primary against incumbent Rep. Stan Frownfelter, Coleman admitted to cyberbullying and revenge porn while in middle school, gaining national attention in the process.

After Coleman defeated Frownfelter in the primary, an ex-girlfriend later came forward alleging he abused her, both physically and verbally, while the pair dated in 2019 and that the harassment continued until his Kansas House bid in 2020.

He has remained in hot water since winning the November general election.

Coleman was the subject of a restraining order from Frownfelter's campaign manager, Brandie Armstrong, although the matter was settled and dropped by mutual agreement earlier this month.

And legislators from both parties objected to Coleman saying a "hit" needed to be taken out on Gov. Laura Kelly for her reluctance to support progressive policies. Coleman said that he meant to say "political hit" and admitted that he should have used different wording. 

Rep. Aaron Coleman, left, receives a formal warning letter from Rep. John Barker, who chaired a committee investigating Coleman's past behavior.

Coleman didn't comment on the matter Thursday but apologized to the committee during the hearing last month, saying he was "embarrassed to be standing before you."

The letter stressed that any future misbehavior would likely be met with disciplinary action.

"Be aware that non-compliance with the recommendations ... may result in a complaint being filed against you pursuant to House Rules, which will likely result in a reprimand, censure or expulsion pursuant to the Rules of the House of Representatives," the letter said.

Taylor Passow, the ex-girlfriend who alleges Coleman abused her in 2019, said the committee's action wasn't sufficient, saying there "are so many reasons" why he should be expelled from the Legislature.

"It is not like he did these things 10 years ago and he grew from it," she said.

She says she is uneasy about Coleman frequenting Topeka, where she lives and works.

"I worry that I'm going to have to run into Aaron and I don't think that is fair," Passow said.

Sawyer told The Capital-Journal that discussions would take place about securing Coleman a mentor.

And he noted there was a path to Coleman becoming a full-fledged member of the Democratic caucus, which would include committee assignments — something Coleman doesn't currently have.

But Sawyer said he was unsure Coleman was interested in doing what was required of him to reach that point.

"If he wants to change, if he wants go through counseling and improve himself and change, then we'll give him consideration for committee assignments," Sawyer said. "But we'll see how it goes."

After a meeting last week, Coleman blasted the minority leader in a news release as "anti-democratic" for not appointing him to any committees. 

"Democratic Leadership’s shocking actions have made it abundantly clear they seek to twist any statement they make to the media and the public, even going back on their words to the media, if politically inconvenient," Coleman wrote in the statement.