SALT LAKE CITY — Allegations of sexual misconduct against a candidate running to lead Utah's Democratic Party took center stage at a party debate Monday, forcing him to walk out as protesters faced the other way when he spoke at the Capitol.
A half-dozen foes of Rob Miller remained with their backs to the panel and at times cried out during the second hour of the meeting after Miller made his exit.
Before he left the room, Miller said he didn't want to further disrupt the forum of candidates vying to replace outgoing Chairman Peter Corroon and would speak again at the party's convention June 17.
"I just don't think that what's going on here should interfere with the rest of the process," he said after the meeting, referring to the allegations against him.
Miller denies any wrongdoing and believes the accusations are political maneuvers by people who want to see someone else lead his party. The former party vice chair and Davis County Democratic leader said he has proof that the claims are false and that his accusers sought to disparage him, but said he could not provide the evidence to reporters Wednesday.
His party's judiciary committee also was meeting Wednesday evening to determine whether to open a formal review of the allegations, but did not announce a decision. No lawsuit or criminal charges have been filed against Miller.
At the forum in the Capitol, two protesters held posters saying "Stop protecting sexual predators" and "I believe" followed by names of those who told current party leaders Miller has made unwelcome advances and grabbed or kissed women.
And three women stood silent in an aisle with their heads bent, refusing to sit or go to the back of the room as moderator Scott Howell repeatedly urged them to move so others could see.
At one point, delegate Tina Escobar Taft stood and sparred with Howell, accusing him of protecting an accused sexual predator.
"We understand that free speech is alive and well," Howell said later in the meeting, explaining that he told protesters to sit or be escorted out by an officer because he wanted "to maintain decorum and show what great leadership we have."
Howell said he wanted to keep focus on issues, give candidates equal exposure and not presume anyone is guilty before an adjudication has been completed.
"You showed what a coward you are," a protester responded.
The allegations stem from a letter that was sent to Utah Democratic Party leaders May 24 by seven women tied to the party. The group alleged Miller made “unwanted and inappropriate” advances over the last three years that included pulling down his pants to show his undergarments.
“Such conduct is unbecoming of party leadership and inappropriate for any person who seeks a position of power over others,” wrote the group that included former party officers and state legislative candidates, former delegates and volunteers, and a Democratic legislative staffer. They are Mary Brady-Bishop, Jennifer Miller-Smith, Celina Milner, Sheryl Ginsberg, Elizabeth Converse, Jill Haring and Ellen Brady.
About 100 people attended the debate Wednesday. After Miller's exit, the remaining six candidates on the panel continued to debate how to dismantle Republicans' hold on the Beehive State, raise money, appeal to voters outside of Salt Lake County and unite their fractured party.
Miller was on the party's executive committee for eight years and was twice elected party vice chairman.