Women who work at Washington’s Capitol report a culture of inappropriate comments and unwanted touching. But the Legislature won’t release records of when lawmakers have been disciplined for such misbehavior.
Concerned citizens need look no further than the reports of inappropriate comments and unwanted touching at Washington’s Legislature to see why the institution’s pervasive secrecy is a problem.
This year, attorneys for the state House and Senate have denied reporters’ requests for complaints, investigations and disciplinary records involving lawmakers, using a questionable interpretation of the law to argue those records aren’t subject to public disclosure.
Without access to these documents, the public is less likely to hold legislators accountable for sexual misconduct or know the scope of the problem. As things stand, anecdotes and rumors of misbehavior abound, echoing throughout the marble halls of the Capitol and passed between female staffers as warnings. This week, more than 170 women signed a letter urging the Legislature to do more to prevent harassment in the workplace.
Washington’s public-records law requires state agencies and local governments to release information about employees who are investigated and disciplined for sexual harassment or assault. Yet the Legislature argues state lawmakers aren’t subject to the same rules, a contention that The Seattle Times and nine other news organizations are now challenging in court.
The Legislature should abandon its policy of secrecy and release complaints and disciplinary actions against lawmakers as a matter of principle. Keeping this information from the public only fosters distrust and enables predatory behavior to continue under the shield of anonymity.
A joint report last week from The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network highlighted just a few of the disturbing stories from women who work at the Capitol. One veteran lobbyist said a Republican senator pulled her toward him, looked down her blouse and told her she looked “real good.” Two other women reported being touched on the buttocks. Others said they frequently get comments about their appearance that make them uncomfortable, but they fear professional repercussions if they make a report.
After that story was published, new allegations surfaced that two former Democratic House members, Brendan Williamsand Jim Jacks, behaved inappropriately toward female staffers. While those men both left the Legislature in 2011, women still maintain an unofficial list of four to five lawmakers and lobbyists whom they tell each other to avoid being alone with, according to the joint investigation.
Women shouldn’t have to navigate around male misbehavior in this fashion. Nor should the Legislature allow this kind of culture to persist.
State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, called the current system “absurd” in a tweet, saying she will introduce legislation to “exempt sexual harassment and assault cases from gag rules and secrecy.”
This is a reform every member of the Legislature should embrace. While The Seattle Times editorial board maintains that nearly all of lawmakers’ records are public and should be disclosed, the Legislature should start by revealing to the public when legislators are investigated or disciplined for sexual misconduct or harassing behavior.
If lawmakers refuse to enact this common-sense change, it raises one key, unsettling question: What exactly are they afraid will come out?