Instead of being investigated by a neutral party, like a human-resources manager, harassment complaints in the state Capitol are reviewed by partisan staff members, as well as administrative and legislative leaders.
OLYMPIA — As frustration builds over sexual-harassment allegations in the Washington Legislature, lawmakers continue to rely on an outdated and politically tinged complaint system that for years received little scrutiny.
Instead of being investigated by a neutral party, like a human-resources manager, complaints are reviewed by partisan staff members, as well as administrative and legislative leaders.
Officials don’t always keep records of complaints, raising questions about the Legislature’s ability to stop possible serial harassers. Moreover, sanctions and complaints are kept private, leaving the public in the dark about possible misconduct by their elected leaders.
Now, as the #MeToo movement continues to grow, lawmakers are grappling with how to strengthen Olympia’s approach to stamp out harassment at the Capitol.
Most Read Local Stories
- King County's top health official recommends masks in public indoor spaces — regardless of vaccination status
- Yes, it's still summer in Seattle, but our days before 'the Big Dark' are numbered
- Like Mordor: A Central Washington town had the worst air quality in the U.S.
- Washington transportation crew clears Seattle homeless encampment after arrests connected to rock-throwing
- Coronavirus daily news updates, July 23: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
Even before the movement emerged last fall, the House had begun a review of its sexual-harassment policies. Since then, the Legislature expanded its sexual-harassment prevention training, and the state House voted to create a task force to review and recommend other changes, such as a code of conduct. The proposal is now before the Senate.
For some, the changes are not coming fast enough.
“I don’t think we’re moving forward with the speed that we should move forward with,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “It’s not clear to me that there’s as much interest in hearing the voices of people who are much more frequently victims.”
More than 170 current and former female lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers have signed a letter calling for legislative leaders to end sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in Olympia.
The letter contends there are no neutral, safe places to report misconduct, and few “meaningful consequences” for those who act inappropriately.
“Clearly the official process is not reflecting women’s experiences writ large in the Legislature,” said Jessyn Farrell, a former Democratic House member from Seattle who has described an incident in 2015 where a male lobbyist patted her behind.
“And that is the challenge for the institution,” she said.
The account of Elisabeth Britt, one of several women to recently step forward with allegations of harassment involving ex-lawmakers, illustrates a process that largely governs how complaints have been handled in Olympia.
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
A legislative aide in 1999 for then-Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, Britt complained that Dunn, while on the House floor, had sent her emails containing sexually inappropriate cartoons and photos.
Britt said a higher-ranking staff member cautioned Dunn about his behavior, but the harassment continued. She said he called her “stupid” and sent her on menial tasks. Britt also said Dunn bullied her and once slapped her — allegations that Dunn vehemently denies.
Dunn, who is now retired, disputes Britt’s other allegations, too, although he has acknowledged copying her on an email with a photo of nude women. He said that after Britt’s complaint, he was spoken to by a legislative administrator.
Britt’s allegations were reviewed by Republican staff members, House administrative staff and the Republican House co-speaker, she said, who at the time was managing a Legislature evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
In an interview, then-Republican co-Speaker Clyde Ballard said he didn’t remember the details of Britt’s account but recalled that Dunn “was doing some things that were inappropriate” around that time and “we had to take some corrective action.”
Dunn was never formally censured over Britt’s allegations. Britt ended up resigning.
But eight years later, officials stripped Dunn of his committee assignments and right to claim expenses for making an inappropriate remark to a different legislative staffer at a hotel bar. He left the Legislature after losing a 2008 primary election.
Dunn acknowledged making an inappropriate comment but downplayed it.
In 2008, Britt began blogging about her experience and tried to retrieve her complaint records from the Legislature. But in a letter, a House attorney said any such documents wouldn’t necessarily belong to her, and may no longer exist.
Former House Counsel Timothy Sekerak and House Minority Leader Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, who were both working in Olympia when Dunn was sanctioned in 2007, said they had no prior knowledge of Britt’s earlier complaint.
An informal process
The 2007 sanctions against Dunn stem from what’s believed to be the only formal harassment complaint in the House in recent memory.
Under that complaint process, harassment reports go to the chief clerk or House counsel. The resulting investigation would then go to the House Executive Rules Committee, a group of legislators who consider sanctions or other action.
More often, the House and the Senate handle complaints through an informal process in which people are urged to resolve problems themselves or inform their direct supervisors.
This informal process is mostly used to settle disputes unrelated to harassment, said House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean.
The House staff comprises workers directly overseen by partisan employees and others considered nonpartisan.
At the top of the chain is the chief clerk, which is considered a nonpartisan job, although the position is appointed by the House speaker and approved by a vote of legislators.
Legislative assistants report directly to their lawmakers, and above that, to the party’s caucus staff director, and, at the top, the chief clerk. Depending on the employee, informal complaints could wind up going to partisan or nonpartisan supervisors, or both.
Lisa Fenton, the current chief of staff for the House Republican caucus, said most informal complaints relate to more minor issues such as parking spaces or working relationships.
“And we always try to deal with them promptly and thoroughly,” said Fenton, who has been chief of staff since about 2013.
While complaints by political staffers or lawmakers may be reported or elevated to the nonpartisan staff, such as Dean’s office, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said, “we tend to police our own.”
“We deal with our members, Republicans deal with their members,” Sullivan said.
Kristiansen, the Republican House minority leader, acknowledged that the Legislature faces constraints in sanctioning lawmakers accused of misconduct.
“We don’t hire the legislators, we can’t fire the legislators; the public hires them and fires them,” he said. “We’re limited, frankly, in what we can do.”
Around the time of Dunn’s sanctioning in 2007, Kristiansen said the Legislature changed the job description of the nonpartisan House counsel to include looking into complaints.
That was intended to take partisanship out of investigations, he said.
It’s unclear whether that has improved the system.
In one recent case, the House counsel reportedly took a complaint about Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, to Republican leadership.
A former legislative staffer had complained last year of feeling uncomfortable about a meeting with Manweller that wound up at a restaurant. She said the meeting felt more like a date.
The staffer was also a former student of Manweller, who is a professor at Central Washington University (CWU). The university had twice previously investigated Manweller for alleged inappropriate conduct involving female students.
In December, after news organizations reported on the complaints at CWU and in Olympia, Manweller stepped down from his leadership post in the House and GOP leaders stripped him of his position as the top Republican on a labor committee.
“A broken link”
Dean said training currently given to lawmakers and staff stresses the need for supervisors to alert the clerk’s office about any concerns. But women who have worked in Olympia say the lack of a neutral place to report harassment is a problem.
Farrell said she didn’t consider making a complaint in 2015 because she worried it would take time and energy away from her legislative work.
“There’s absolutely a broken link between what is said in the shadows and what is said quietly, and what is said in the informal complaint process,” Farrell said.
Lobbyist Rebecca Johnson has spoken publicly about an encounter with one former lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Jim Jacks of Vancouver.
Johnson said Jacks touched her inappropriately in 2009 — two years before he resigned amid reports of inappropriate behavior toward a female legislative staffer. The reason for Jacks’ resignation wasn’t made public until last November.
Johnson said she didn’t know how to speak up about the incident with Jacks in a way that wouldn’t affect her career.
“It was my first year, and how to do I explain [that] to my boss?” she said. “It’s my job to talk with legislators.”
Nationally, two studies have shown 70 percent of people who experienced harassment never discussed it with a manager, a 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says.
One of those studies found that only 8 percent of people who experienced unwanted touching formally reported it.
Johnson said the Legislature should have some sort of central repository for complaints “where somebody knows the breadth of what’s happening.” That could be an ombudsman or a separate human resources office.
The Legislature also should consider an occasional survey that would allow people to give anonymous feedback on harassment, Farrell said.
Dean said the House is starting to provide bystander training, so employees feel a collective responsibility to recognize and report inappropriate behavior. He acknowledged that when it comes to harassment, “I think there’s reluctance to quote-unquote take it upstairs.”
But he’s concerned about creating an independent entity to handle complaints.
“We, the House as an institution, have both the legal and moral responsibility to address those issues,” he said.