State Sen. Pam Roach has been kicked off a legislative task force on human trafficking after complaints that she belittled and verbally abused victims of sex trafficking at a meeting last month.
OLYMPIA — Heaping another episode onto her pile of rebukes from legislative leaders, state Sen. Pam Roach has been kicked off a human-trafficking task force after complaints that she belittled and verbally abused victims of sex trafficking at a meeting this past month.
In a scathing letter sent Monday, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said he was removing Roach, R-Sumner, from the task force after receiving “numerous complaints” about her conduct at a Dec. 14 meeting of the panel.
Owen, a Democrat, said in the letter while he did not have the authority to boot Roach from the Senate, he believed she should be removed from that body based on her lengthy record of “egregious and offensive behavior” toward staff, colleagues and the public.
Roach strongly denied the allegations and called Owen’s letter “one big fricking hit piece.” One fellow lawmaker on the task force came to her defense and called Owen’s letter an overreaction.
It’s the latest in a history of allegations of rude and abusive outbursts by Roach, who represents the 31st Legislative District of southeast King and northeast Pierce counties.
She has previously been banned from Republican caucus meetings, barred from speaking with staff and advised to get anger-management counseling. Owen’s letter noted she previously had sanctions imposed or recommended against her, most often from Republican leaders, in 1999, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Owen said he took action after interviewing attendees of the December meeting of the Washington State Task Force Against the Trafficking of Persons, who were consistent in their descriptions of Roach’s behavior.
“You attacked agency staff, persons both present and absent, stakeholders and persons who have miraculously survived being victims of trafficking,” his letter said.
“Among other fictions, you claimed that sexually trafficked and homeless youth are deliberately trying not to fit in with their families by tattooing their faces and getting piercings. Without any apparent basis you minimized the exploitation of sexually trafficked minors by alleging that they probably spend their money on drugs, and asked if the labor trafficked persons were ‘illegals,’ ” Owen wrote.
Those comments “diminish the horrors of trafficking by attacking its victims and consequently erode support for the courageous efforts to combat it,” the letter said.
Roach rejected those charges and accused Owen of bias. “The lieutenant governor is politically motivated and always has been,” she said.
She brought up Owen’s own $15,000 ethics fine from 2014 over mingling work for his nonprofit with his official duties, suggesting he was in no position to point fingers.
Roach said if she was angry at anything it was that it took several months for the task force to hold its first meeting. She lambasted the Department of Commerce, which helped organize the meeting, as “incompetent” for the delay.
“My office could have done that easily in two weeks. Somebody needs to stand up for the people,” she said.
The task force, authorized by the Legislature and signed into law last May, is charged with making recommendations to fight human trafficking, including victimization of low-wage agricultural workers and sexual exploitation of teens.
Roach pointed to her long record of sponsoring anti-trafficking legislation, including a 2012 law that closed loopholes in statutes combating teen sexual exploitation. “It is Pam Roach who has been the leader,” Roach said of her advocacy.
She denied being abusive toward trafficking victims, noting Owen never spoke with her or other legislators on the task force before releasing the letter.
Roach added that her mention of tattoos and piercings was in the context of homeless youths and others at the meeting saying they’d had a hard time finding work.
Owen’s letter included statements from several people who attended the meeting. One described Roach’s comments as “victim-blaming, bigoted and potentially triggering to survivors and others at the table.” Others said Roach made victims feel “vilified and mocked” and left participants feeling “little could be accomplished while she was engaged in political posturing.”
In a memo to Owen, Dan Newell, an assistant superintendent with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said he was unwilling to remain on the task force unless Roach was removed.
State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, a task-force member who was at the meeting, defended Roach. She said some people in attendance may not have been used to Roach’s “assertive” nature. While Roach sometimes does not have “the most judicious use of words … there is not a mean bone in her body,” Chase said.
Chase added she was “annoyed” by some of the rhetoric in Owen’s letter and by the fact that he didn’t contact her and other legislators before sending it.
The Department of Commerce had been considering restructuring the task force solely to limit Roach’s contacts with trafficking victims and advocates. Owen wrote that would be a disservice. Instead, he said he’d exercise his authority as the Senate’s presiding officer to kick Roach off the task force.
She was appointed to the panel last year at the request of Senate Republican leadership.
The rift between Roach and Owen could prove awkward; she is president pro tempore of the Senate, meaning she presides over the body when Owen is absent.
Roach owes that position to Senate Democrats, who joined with Roach and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, to install Roach in the leadership post this past year. That move was made to deny the position to Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who has allied himself with the Republican majority caucus in the Senate.
Roach is the state Senate’s longest-serving Republican member. Despite her record of controversies she has continued to be re-elected and in 2014 fended off a challenge from then-GOP State Rep. Cathy Dahlquist.
This year, Roach is seeking a seat on the Pierce County Council.
Speaking with reporters in his office Monday, Owen was asked whether he thought his latest rebuke of Roach would have any more impact than past efforts.
“No. I don’t think it will change anything,” he said.