Newly released records in the candidate's discrimination lawsuit against KIRO provide a look at Susan Hutchison's stormy relationship with her superiors after the station hired a younger, Asian-American woman to replace her.
Susan Hutchison, now a candidate for King County executive, was so stressed about having been replaced as a news anchor at KIRO-TV that she took medical leave in September 2002 and never went back to work at the station before she was terminated in December of that year.
The first batch of records from Hutchison’s 2003 discrimination lawsuit against KIRO — unsealed by a judge Friday — shows a stormy relationship between Hutchison and her superiors, but no bombshell revelations. The case was settled in 2005.
The records show that during a tumultuous time at KIRO — amid low ratings and staff changes — Hutchison’s supervisors lost faith in her ability to stabilize the station’s viewership. And after being demoted from the anchor’s chair, her supervisors said Hutchison’s behavior caused her to lose credibility with them.
On Friday, about 400 pages of records were released after news organizations led by The Seattle Times argued that the documents had been improperly sealed.
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King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw agreed. “The openness of our courts is constitutionally mandated and is a vital part of state history,” Bradshaw said in his ruling.
The Times estimates up to 350 pages remain for the court to unseal. That is expected to happen next week.
Hutchison had been fighting release of the records.
In a written and videotaped statement after the judge’s ruling, Hutchison said her lawsuit against KIRO prepared her for public office:
“There is no doubt that the hard road I chose in fighting against discrimination so many years ago also prepared me for the rigors of this campaign, and the demands of serving in public life.”
New anchor hired
According to the records, the problems started after KIRO hired a younger, Asian-American woman, Kristy Lee, 31, in December 2001 to replace Hutchison, then 47, as evening news anchor. KIRO had sought longtime KING-TV anchor Jean Enersen, but she was under long-term contract with KIRO’s competitor.
KIRO managers said they replaced Hutchison because $1 million in market research showed the station had the lowest rating among the three network stations in Seattle and Hutchison was one of the lowest-rated anchors.
Hutchison crossed her bosses when she was denied vacation for the Fourth of July in 2002 and called in sick.
She was later seen — and photographed — by co-workers while she was rafting in Bend, Ore., then-KIRO general manager John Woodin said in an affidavit included in the records.
Woodin said when he asked Hutchison about her time off she apologized and said a family vacation had been planned for the holiday at Sunriver Resort.
In court records, Hutchison said she was suffering from sharp pain and a bleeding hemorrhoid. But her condition improved over the holiday and she was able to shop and go rafting.
Then-news director Helen Swenson suspended her without pay for five days and said “other employees were upset that Ms. Hutchison was seen vacationing and rafting while she was supposed to be out sick.”
In the court records, Hutchison said she was suspended and replaced as an anchor by KIRO because she went to the aid of a co-worker who she said was being wrongfully terminated. Hutchison made that argument in a January 2003 complaint to the National Labor Relations Board.
The board determined there was insufficient evidence of retaliation.
After her demotion, Hutchison began suggesting to co-workers that Woodin and Swenson were having an affair, co-workers said in depositions. The managers frequently lunched together at Chandler’s Crabhouse on Lake Union to talk privately about personnel matters, Woodin said.
Hutchison confronted Woodin in June 2002, and he denied the allegation. He also denied the affair in a sworn deposition.
Hutchison’s concern with Woodin’s behavior didn’t stop there.
Sometime in 2002, Hutchison learned he hired a young female intern who had no broadcast experience. Hutchison said she feared the intern would displace a friend, and Hutchison told a co-worker she suspected Woodin was trying to sleep with the intern.
Hutchison also said as much to the intern’s mother, saying Woodin would “demand sexual favors” from the intern, according to the mother’s sworn statement. Hutchison also claimed that KIRO was a “bad environment” because of “drug abuse” and “sexual misconduct,” according to Woodin’s account of a conversation he had with the intern’s father.
KIRO contended that Hutchison’s statements to the woman’s mother were false. The station’s lawyers also argued that had Woodin known “the full extent of Hutchison’s conduct, he would have fired her immediately.”
Took leave for stress
Hutchison’s 20-year tenure at KIRO wound to an end when she went on paid medical leave Sept. 18, 2002.
She claimed the stress of seeing Lee in the anchor chair aggravated pre-existing gastrointestinal problems.
She never returned.
On Dec. 20, 2002, KIRO offered Hutchison noon anchor duties and special assignments at a reduced salary of $150,000 — more than a 50 percent pay cut. Hutchison declined and asked for her old job. KIRO rejected that request, and she was terminated.
Hutchison’s statement Friday claimed she is still muzzled by a 2005 confidentiality agreement with KIRO and unable to discuss the case and KIRO’s allegations about her.
“My lips are sealed even as these documents are unsealed,” Hutchison said in her statement.
But Bradshaw, the judge, said, “As to the muzzling argument, it is sufficiently clear that’s not the case.”
KIRO’s lawyer Bruce Johnson maintained, in a letter to the court, that Hutchison was free to talk about the case; she just can’t discuss details of the settlement she reached with KIRO.
After Bradshaw’s ruling, Jon Rosen, Hutchison’s lawyer, said he expected Hutchison would rebut some of KIRO’s claims.
Hutchison’s campaign manager insisted that Hutchison was still unable to talk about the lawsuit because of the confidentiality agreement.
“As far as we’re concerned she’s still bound by it. We don’t believe he (Bradshaw) has jurisdiction to release her from the confidentiality agreement,” said Jordan McCarren.
Hutchison, who has taken a commanding lead in many polls, is among five top candidates for King County executive. The others are King County Councilmembers Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips, state Rep. Ross Hunter and state Sen. Fred Jarrett.
The primary is Aug. 18. The top two vote-getters move on to the Nov. 3 general election.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org