Sawyer’s attorney accused state House Democrats of politicizing an investigation into allegations that the lawmaker engaged in inappropriate behavior and may have created a hostile work environment.
OLYMPIA — Washington state House Democrats Wednesday voted to suspend Rep. David Sawyer from his committee chairmanship amid an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior and possibly creating a hostile work environment.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday, the House Committee on Committees recommended suspending Sawyer, a Tacoma Democrat, as leader of the House Commerce and Gaming Committee.
By Wednesday evening, the full Democratic caucus had voted to approve that recommendation.
The caucus may take further action after the investigation is finished, according to a statement by House Democratic leaders. Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, will assume the duties as chair of Commerce and Gaming.
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“House Democrats have been clear that workplace harassment will not be tolerated,” Democratic leaders said in a statement. “Substantiated allegations of workplace misconduct will result in consequences, no matter one’s political party.”
Sawyer has denied the allegations, and his attorney released a letter accusing House Democrats of politicizing the investigation.
Sawyer did not attend Wednesday’s meetings but released a statement that said in part: “I support a fair and transparent investigation. This does not reflect that at all. In fact, it reflects poorly on the institution we all have a responsibility to honor.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the investigation had so far substantiated some allegations that Sawyer may have created a hostile workplace.
Those allegations were not a one-time incident, but occurred over time and involved multiple staffers, he said. Sullivan said that he, in his personal capacity, has asked Sawyer not to run for re-election this fall.
Washington State Democrats Chair Tina Podlodowski also called on Sawyer to not seek re-election.
House Democratic leaders announced Friday evening that while an independent investigation into the allegations isn’t yet complete, the investigator had confirmed some of the allegations, prompting leadership to recommend Sawyer’s suspension.
But in a letter Wednesday to House leaders and officials, Sawyer’s attorney, Beth Terrell, accused House Democrats of politicizing the investigation and said House leaders have not told Sawyer which allegations the investigator says are supported.
Sawyer sat for more than six hours of questions for the investigation, according to Terrell’s letter.
“We understood that the investigator asked about any allegations she found credible,” she wrote. “Significantly, not a single allegation involved improper or unwanted touching, groping, sexual propositions, either express or implied, or pursuit of a romantic relationship.”
House officials in February restricted Sawyer’s contact with staff after a woman filed a complaint that the representative may have created a hostile work environment.
Other women then came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior against Sawyer, according to reports by The (Tacoma) News Tribune and Northwest News Network.
In March, the House contracted with the law firm Beresford Booth to conduct a workplace investigation to examine at least some of the allegations.
That investigation is due to wrap up by the end of May, but Democratic leaders decided not to wait.
Wednesday’s proceedings — which included the committee hearing and caucus meeting, both closed to the public — come a week before candidates must file for office.
The allegations against Sawyer have already created a rift among Democrats over his future.
On Tuesday, representatives of eight organizations — including Washington Conservation Voters and SEIU 775 — called on Sawyer not to run again.
“We not only believe the women who have shared their stories, but today we are standing with them,” a letter from the organizations said.
“This is one of those situations where we felt it was really important to listen to the women who were speaking out,” said Treasure Mackley, interim CEO for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii. Mackley is among those who signed the letter.
If Sawyer files for re-election, the group won’t support him, Mackley added.
Meanwhile, Melanie Morgan, a Democrat expected to challenge Sawyer, has secured the endorsements of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Tacoma Democrats Rep. Laurie Jinkins and Sen. Jeannie Darneille.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged last fall, officials, lawmakers and staff in the House and Senate have engaged in months of soul-searching over how to overhaul to the Legislature’s outdated and politically tinged process for handling harassment complaints.
House and Senate officials have boosted harassment training and undertaken internal discussions about power dynamics and the culture at the Capitol campus.
A work group in the House is currently examining how to create an independent office to receive and possibly review harassment complaints at the Capitol.