Bipartisan ethics panel letter: State Sen. Steinborn ‘very likely’ engaged in sexual harassment

In May of 2018, a lobbyist for Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM), Laura Bonar, accused then-New Mexico state Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Santa Fe area legislator of sexual harassment. In her open letter sent to the press, she alleged that Trujillo touched her inappropriately. Trujillo vehemently denied the allegations. 

The letter dropped during the 2018 Democratic primary election, where a staunch abortion advocate, Andrea Romero, was challenging the more moderate Rep. Trujillo for the seat. 

Directly after Bonar’s public letter hit, the Democrat Party of New Mexico blasted Trujillo, with Chairwoman Marg Ellison saying, “We’re very disappointed that Rep. Trujillo’s initial response is to accuse the victim of lies.” 

Julianna Koob, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico, allegedly organized hundreds of phone calls made to voters in the district spreading the accusations. Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Jennings of APNM also spread these accusations in their respective capacities. 

Despite any formal investigation request submission by Bonar, the claims prompted Democrat Speaker of the House Brian Egolf to begin an inquiry by the Legislative Ethics Subcommittee. 

The Subcommittee took up the seemingly politically motivated case. However, by the time the matter came before the body, Bonar’s accusations had sunk Trujillo’s re-election bid, handing the Democratic nomination to Romero. 

Trujillo offered to provide whatever necessary information and documentation to the Subcommittee to clear his name, including taking a lie detector test and submitting any documentary evidence requested to resolve the matter. The Subcommittee did a thorough investigation, which yielded a 43-page report.

The attorney hired on-contract by the Legislative Council Service to oversee the process. Tom Hnasko has represented Speaker of the House Brian Egolf before. He has also donated to Egolf’s “Brian Egolf Speaker Fund.” According to the Subcommittee, Hnasco engaged in possible “unethical” conduct by not bringing forth testimony revealing other potential misconduct by another legislator in front of the panel. 

The Subcommittee later cleared Trujillo of all wrongdoing after Bonar refused to testify under oath to the claims and “broadly objected to producing records and information directly relevant to her claims of sexual harassment against Representative Trujillo.”

Now, according to a February 26, 2019 letter obtained by the Piñon Post, during the time of the inquiry into Rep. Trujillo, the Subcommittee unearthed another possible instance of sexual harassment against Ms. Bonar, this time a different legislator who “very likely engaged in” the sexual act.

During the depositions of Elizabeth Jennings, executive director of APNM and Animal Protection Voters (APV), Daniel Abram, human resources director for APNM, and Ms. Bonar herself, the Legislative Ethics Subcommittee found that then-state Rep., now-state Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), had allegedly engaged in an incident of sexual harassment “sometime in 2014,” where Steinborn was said to have grabbed Ms. Bonar’s face in a hallway.

The details from Ms. Bonar’s June 7, 2018 deposition by Tom Hnasko read as follows: 

Pages 45 – 47:

“[I] was standing in the hallway, outside a committee room, and a legislator came out of the bathroom” — “he gave me a hug, someone I know” — “He put his hand on my face and just sort of held my face. It was a really weird, uncomfortable moment. I was cornered, and he just kind of kept saying my name and looking at me.” 

“Q. Abusive, right? 

“A. …This other legislator, yes, I mean, he’s in a position of power—the way it happened in front of other people, other people that thought something was going on. It was… . I had disgusting comments made to me by staff. 

Page 49:

“[It] felt abusive” (the holding of the face) and “the impact on me was extremely negative.” 

Ms. Elizabeth Jennings’ November 5, 2018 deposition by Rep. Trujillo’s attorney reads as follows:

Page 66

“Q. (By Mr. Loman [attorney for Mr. Trujillo]) Well, let me ask you, was there some other incident of sexual harassment that was going on around the same time that Mr. Abram would have been taking notes for? [Mr. Abram is the human resources director for APNM]

“A. Laura did say something else about another incident, and it was unrelated to the Carl Trujillo incident.

Page 67: 

“Q. She reported that she was sexually harassed by another person? 

“A. Yes.

“Q. Another legislator? 

“A. Yes.

“Q. Okay. Was that during this March 16th Meeting? 

“A. Yes.

“Q. Okay. And who was that? What did she tell you?

“A. I’d prefer not to answer that.

“Q. Okay. Based on what?

“A. It’s not my story to tell.

“Q. Okay. What was it that she told you, then?

“A. I’d prefer not to answer that.

“Q. Okay, so at some point around the same time Laura told you that she was sexually harassed by another legislator, and you’re refusing to tell me what she told you and who the legislator was; is that true? Do I have all that correct? 

“A. I’d prefer not to answer, yes.” 

Page 69:

“Q. [by Mr. Loman] …Okay. Whatever this other incident was, with whomever it was, why did Ms. Bonar write an open letter about Carl Trujillo this year and not about this other person? 

“A. I don’t know.

“Q. Okay. has Ms. Bonar ever told you about any other incidents where she felt like she was sexually harassed in any other way than what we’ve talked about with Carl Trujillo and whatever’s redacted here?

“A. No. I don’t remember anything else. 

“Q. Okay, when did this other incident occur? What year?

“A. I don’t know.

“Q. [Referring to a note being consulted during the deposition] Over on the side — and I’m going to reach across and point it out to you–I can make out 2014 in that bit that’s redacted [but still legible]. Was she telling you this happened–the other incident occurred in 2014? 

“A. I don’t know, but certainly it’s plausible since there’s a date there. I honestly don’t remember.

“Q. Okay. Then going down, we have more notes that are not redacted. It says, “Most concerned about Carl,” and it says here, “Was not interested in an apology.” So now we’re talking about multiple incidents.”

Mr. Abram’s notes regarding the matter read as follows:

“Steinborn INCIDENT

“2014

“Steinborn outside house majority office

“15 to 20 lobbyists standing around

“Grabbed my face and kept saying my name

“‘did that in front of other people intentionally to make them feel something was going on between us’

“I wanted to talk to Steinborn and say ‘that really wasn’t cool’

“Did not end up doing that [-] still during session & got the feeling it wouldn’t be perceived as helpful to our work”

The letter from the members of the Legislative Ethics Subcommittee reads:

“Taken together, these statements indicate that Ms. Bonar communicated to Elizabeth Jennings and/or Daniel Abram that she [Bonar] was sexually harassed by Representative Steinborn sometime in 2014.”

The depositions were included in the document, signed by seven of the eight legislators on the Subcommittee, excluding Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-Las Cruces), recommending further action be taken to investigate the allegations against Steinborn. 

The Subcommittee then recommended: 

The above material was redacted and withheld from the Subcommittee, presumably at Mr. Hnasko’s or Legislative Council Service’s direction. 

Concerned about the references in the depositions to a sexual harassment incident involving a legislator named “Jeff” and the “Steinborn INCIDENT” heading in Mr. Abram’s notes, several Subcommittee members exercised due diligence and requested an opportunity to see the original, unredacted transcript of Laura Bonar interview. The members who viewed the transcript at Legislative Council Service were not allowed to have or make a copy of the Bonar interview, so one member took brief notes. The material cited above is thus approximate, not precisely verbatim. There appears to be a discrepancy about the “Steinborn incident”—e.g., whether it happened outside a committee room or outside the majority office. Perhaps there were multiple episodes? 

Under all of the circumstances outlined above, we believe we have an obligation not to ignore the testimony of Elizabeth Jennings, Daniel Abram, and Laura Bonar. We recommend that the Legislative Council Service begin the process of investigating the Jeff Steinborn incident. We further recommend that the LCS not involve Mr. Tom Hnasko in this inquiry, as his decision to withhold certain information from the Subcommittee is problematic and was possibly unethical. 

The legislators who responded to the Piñon Post’s request for comment declined to opine on the letter itself, citing state statute. 

One legislator wrote, “As much as I would like to answer your questions, I am afraid I am not at liberty to do so.  The law ‘prohibits [a] subcommittee and its staff from disclosing any information relating to [an] investigation’ (as per Raul Burciaga, Director, Legislative Council Service). I have a solemn duty of confidentiality and must abide by it.”

The New Mexico House and Senate leadership (with Republican members outnumbered 3:2) held a split vote, which resulted in no further action being taken on the case on a party-line vote. This has been confirmed by multiple sources involved in the leadership vote, and it was indeed split, not unanimous. One legislator involved in the vote disclosed that the motion “did not have sufficient support to move forward.”

Although there are depositions, notes, and other evidence obtained during the initial Legislative Ethics Subcommittee inquiry into Steinborn’s potential involvement in sexual harassment against Bonar, her attorney, Levi Monagle, told the Piñon Post that Bonar contends she was only harassed by Rep. Trujillo and another legislator, who she did not name, but has since passed away.

Ms. Bonar’s attorney provided us with the following statement:

While Laura and many other lobbyists, staffers, legislators and citizens have had encounters at the Roundhouse that were inappropriate or unsettling in one way or another, Laura can (and does) authoritatively state that she was never sexually harassed by Jeff Steinborn. There was an incident discussed in the prior investigations where Laura was sexually harassed by another legislator besides Carl Trujillo, but that legislator was not Jeff Steinborn. That legislator is deceased, and Laura has no interest in speaking ill of the dead.

In 2018, Laura and her coworkers at APVNM took a strong stance against sexual harassment at the Roundhouse. Insofar as Carl Trujillo was a staunch supporter of the animal protection cause, Laura and her coworkers took their stance against their organization’s own political interests. They took a brave and principled stand knowing that they would suffer consequences for it – and they did indeed suffer consequences for it. Standing up to Carl Trujillo was a very difficult chapter for Laura and her coworkers and they are not interested in rehashing it.

When requesting clarity on the statement, Ms. Bonar’s attorney replied, “Ms. Bonar is stating that Jeff Steinborn never sexually harassed her in any way.”

The documentation from the depositions all appears to point to the same incident, where then-Rep. Jeff Steinborn allegedly grabbed Ms. Bonar’s face in a hallway. Although Ms. Bonar contends that the perpetrator is now deceased, questions still remain as to why Jeff Steinborn’s name was written in Mr. Abram’s notes–the same notes that detail a similar incident recounted in Ms. Bonar’s 2018 deposition.

In November, Sen. Jeff Steinborn is up for re-election, facing off against Republican nominee Kimberly Skaggs in the 36th Senate District. He has been rated as an “Animal Protection Champion” by Animal Protection Voters as recently as 2019. Steinborn has not yet returned the Piñon Post’s requests for comment.

UPDATE: October 15, 2020, 7:00 P.M. MST: Senator Steinborn provided the Piñon Post with the following statement, as well as a letter he received from the Legislative Ethics Subcommittee regarding their dismissal of the previous recommendation.

I have great respect for the professional boundaries that must be maintained by all people. I firmly believe that women deserve to be heard and that reports of misconduct should be taken seriously and investigated by the appropriate parties. 

I can say, unequivocally, that I have not sexually harassed anyone. I appreciate Ms. Bonar immediately releasing a statement through her attorney stating that “Jeff Steinborn never sexually harassed her [Ms. Bonar] in any way.” Ms. Bonar’s statement confirmed the results of an independent investigation, conducted by outside counsel, and unanimously approved by the bi-partisan Senate leadership, that no further investigation or action was needed. 

It is disappointing that a serious issue like this be deliberately mischaracterized and distorted by political operatives for the sake of a headline.

Editor’s Note: The Piñon Post is proud of our objective reporting on this matter of legitimate public concern. Before publication, all parties involved were afforded multiple opportunities to provide comments. Those who did provide comments had their statements published in their entirety. Through this report, we are glad to have provided New Mexicans with a greater understanding of the situation to let them form conclusions based on the facts, not political rhetoric.

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