The independent investigation comes after allegations of inappropriate behavior were made earlier this year against the Tacoma Democrat, and while Olympia struggles to upgrade its anti-harassment policies in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
OLYMPIA — Washington state Rep. David Sawyer made offensive comments and jokes to legislative staffers that were sexual in nature, and violated policy on personal use of state resources, an outside investigation has found.
House Democratic officials released a summary of investigative findings detailing behavior by Sawyer toward three legislative staffers, including comments toward two of them based on their gender or sexual orientation.
House leaders said they would strip the Tacoma Democrat of his committee chairmanship, but Sawyer said he would step down voluntarily from his leadership post on the Commerce and Gaming Committee.
At least one staffer cited in the report said she felt afraid to speak to her supervisor regarding concerns about Sawyer, because those two were friends, the report said.
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Meanwhile, Washington lawmakers continue to struggle with how to disclose the results of harassment investigations. While a bipartisan public-records proposal earlier this year would have made final investigative reports public, Democratic officials Monday released only the executive summary.
Sawyer, who has previously denied the allegations and protested his treatment through the investigative process, on Monday apologized for his conduct.
“Clearly my actions made people who work with me uncomfortable,” Sawyer said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize to those individuals, and I recognize that they felt they could not express their concerns due to my position as an elected official.”
He added, “I commit to taking these findings to heart and change my behavior to earn back the trust I have lost.”
In the case of the staffer who felt uncomfortable speaking with her supervisor, Sawyer sent “multiple inappropriate and offensive text messages” according to the report, and “both his conduct and his intentions were sexual in nature.”
The lawmaker violated policies regarding personal use of state resources by discussing the allegations against him — as well as related media coverage — with at least one different staffer. In that case, Sawyer asked the staffer to help manage his response strategies, the investigation found.
“His comportment was not appropriate for an elected member of the House, nor did it reflect the dignity of the institution as required by the [House] policy,” said the summary of the investigation conducted by the law firm Beresford Booth.
Democratic leadership will recommend Sawyer permanently lose his committee chairmanship, according to Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington. That move would ultimately require a vote among Democratic House members.
The allegation regarding the improper use of state resources will be forwarded to the Legislative Ethics Board, Sullivan said. Sawyer also won’t be allowed a legislative assistant.
Democratic lawmakers last month suspended Sawyer from his committee chairmanship. That move came after House leadership said initial investigation findings substantiated some allegations that the lawmaker may have created a hostile work environment.
The summary released Monday — which does not provide the names and titles of the staffers or some others who were interviewed — recommended more anti-harassment training in the Legislature as well as better tracking for who has attended such training.
Sawyer was found to have “drunk dialed” multiple women, including House employees, according to a one-page summary by House counsel that accompanied the investigative summary. He also repeatedly sent “inappropriate and offensive” text messages to employees.
When cautioned about his behavior, Sawyer “responded that he was ‘not the one who would get fired,’ ” the House counsel summary said.
It also recommended separating some roles of the House deputy chief of staff, so that one person is not responsible for both “onboarding” new legislative assistants and overseeing them.
The Seattle Times in January documented the Legislature’s outdated and politically-tinged system for reporting and investigating workplace complaints.
Rather than being investigated by a neutral party, such as the law firm that conducted the Sawyer investigation, complaints traditionally been reviewed by partisan staff members, as well as administrative and legislative leaders.
Both the House and the Senate usually handle complaints through an informal process in which people are urged to resolve problems themselves or inform their direct supervisors.
Legislative assistants report directly to lawmakers and, above that, to a partisan staff director, and then to the House Chief Clerk.
Officials don’t always keep records about complaints, which raises questions about the Legislature’s ability to police and prevent potential serial harassers.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged last autumn, lawmakers and legislative officials have wrestled over how to address harassment in Olympia.
After boosting anti-harassment training and embarking on months of internal conversations about power dynamics in the political work environment, officials are now considering the creation of an independent ombuds office to review harassment complaints.
Last week, Sawyer’s attorney made a public-records request seeking a copy of the investigative report, which the Legislature does not consider a public document.
But the full report will be released publicly or internally to House members, including Sawyer.
Even though state agencies routinely release harassment investigative reports under Washington’s Public Records Act, Sullivan said the secrecy is necessary to protect people coming forward with complaints.