OLYMPIA — House Speaker Laurie Jinkins on Thursday evening criticized the “case-by-case response” to how her chamber releases investigative reports reviewing allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior by Washington lawmakers.
The remarks by Jinkins offered a rare public rebuke and came after House officials Wednesday night released the executive summary of a 2019 report into allegations that former Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, harassed and intimidated staff.
In response to public-records requests by The Seattle Times and other news organizations, the House released a four-page executive summary of the report, rather than the full report as requested.
The executive summary’s release came just weeks after the House released the full investigative report in the case of a different lawmaker, Rep. Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley Republican. That report alleged Shea participated in domestic terrorism against the U.S. government.
Jinkins said she has asked House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean and the chamber’s counsel to work on creating basic standards for when reports are disclosed and how redactions are made to protect the privacy of complainants.
“Instead, what we’ve had is a case-by-case response, which I think, in my book, just creates more problems,” said Jinkins, adding later: “I want transparency and I also want complainants to be protected.”
The executive summary released Wednesday night found that Morris likely violated personnel policies against harassment and intimidation with his behavior toward staff.
There were no allegations of sexual harassment against Morris, according to an executive summary of the report dated March 19, 2019 and released in response to a longstanding public-records request by The Seattle Times.
Rather, the outside investigator found nine themes, including that Morris “often does not communicate clearly, insults and disrespects others, and gives staff the impression that nothing they do is good enough.”
The review against Morris was launched in fall 2018 after a legislative staffer made a complaint about “longstanding concerns” with the lawmaker. The complaint came shortly before Morris lost his position as chair of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee.
The staffer said she had not brought forward the concerns earlier “due to fear of retaliation and a lack of confidence in the House to protect staff from both the offending behavior and from retaliation,” according to the summary.
Morris, who stepped down in November to take a job in the private sector, has previously declined to comment on the findings. He has suggested that the complaint could have been from a workplace conflict with one person, or it could have been politically motivated.
“As far as I know, this is more political than it is reality,” he said in December 2018, as the review was being conducted.
Morris spoke with investigators, according to the summary. In a Twitter direct message Thursday morning, Morris said that he had also provided a written response — but that response was not included in the executive summary.
The former lawmaker Thursday provided a copy of a response letter to The Associated Press, which Morris said he gave House officials last July. He told The Associated Press the memo was supposed to be attached to all copies of the summary and the full report.
For the report, Daphne Schneider, the investigator commissioned by the House, interviewed 18 people, including legislative staffers and lawmakers. The summary also said Morris “frequently sent unintelligible communications to staff and members” and made “untrue statements about others.”
“Everyone with whom I spoke, including those who stated that they have learned how to work well with Rep. Morris and talked about his positive behaviors and attributes, agreed that he exhibits some highly problematic behaviors,” Schneider wrote in the summary. She added that “many of those behaviors are also exhibited” by other lawmakers, but “Rep. Morris acts in these ways more frequently and more intensely than others.”
Morris told the investigator he had never been told about staff having issues, other than concerns about their workload, according to the summary. He said he was never trained on how to interact with staffers, and he didn’t realize his behavior was intimidating. The former legislator also said he used voice commands on his smartphone for communications without proofreading, “sometimes causing problems …”
The summary recommended setting expectations for the lawmaker’s behavior and not giving him another chair position unless he demonstrated better behavior.
Wednesday’s release of the report comes after the Washington Supreme Court in December ruled that lawmakers’ offices are subject to the state Public Records Act. Lawmakers and legislative officials had long claimed they were exempt from that law, which requires local and state government agencies to release records such as emails, text messages and investigative reports.
It remains to be seen whether House officials will release the full report in a later installment of records, as requested by The Times and other news organizations.