A Senate investigation into Kevin Ranker is an early test of the Legislature's new efforts to address sexual harassment and its workplace culture.
While working in the office of Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker in 2010, Ann Larson says he made unwanted advances, touched her inappropriately and seemed to grow increasingly angry as she rebuffed him.
Then, after leaving the job, she says Ranker continued to make advances and treat her with hostility, even threatening to cut funding from the state department where she had taken a new position.
Larson, who said she had previously had some consensual sexual encounters with Ranker, was so troubled about Ranker’s conduct that she said she complained to state Senate officials in 2010 and to her agency leadership a couple of years later. Only recently, after notifying the governor’s office that she was exploring going public about the issue, did the state Senate hire an investigator to examine Ranker’s conduct.
Larson’s case is now poised to be an early test of Olympia’s new efforts to address its workplace culture. Women who have worked in the Capitol in recent years have expressed wariness about inappropriate conduct and whether the culture there has historically perpetuated harassment.
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“Whether or not there is a finding, at least I know there is an actual investigation happening,” Larson said. “I applaud the Senate for doing something for once.”
A spokesman for Ranker, who is from Orcas Island, said he was not going to do interviews while the investigation was ongoing. He said in a statement that he believed an investigation was needed to ensure the fairness of all involved.
“I will continue to fully cooperate with the investigation and in the end, I believe that I will be exonerated from these allegations,” Ranker said.
“I couldn’t function”
Larson said she first met Ranker about 10 years ago when he was on the San Juan County Council and she was working for the council. She said he worked to help her career at that time and the two later had some sexual encounters, including in his council office and in the council chambers.
Larson said Ranker, who was and is married, later tried to recruit her to come work in Olympia, where he served as a lawmaker after his election in 2008. She recalled an event when she went to visit the Legislature, with Ranker taking her to various gatherings with other lawmakers and lobbyists. She said that after a night of heavy drinking they ended up at Ranker’s condo, where she says another sexual encounter occurred.
She eventually went to work with Ranker but said she attempted to set a professional tone with him and declined his advances in the office. But she said Ranker persisted with inappropriate touching, making flirtatious comments, asking her to stay late and offering her alcohol.
Larson said Ranker seemed to grow increasingly hostile as she rebuffed his advances and their relationship soured. She said at one point he grew so angry, yelling and slamming a door, that she left the office in tears and ran into an attorney for the Legislature. They went off campus, where she said she described her concerns about Ranker.
Brad Hendrickson, the secretary of the Senate, declined to discuss what happened after the 2010 concerns due to the current investigation, which he expects will explore those past concerns. He said for this current investigation, the existence of which was first reported by The Associated Press, the Senate received a referral on Larson’s concerns on Oct. 18 and had hired an outside investigator by Oct. 25.
Larson left the Legislature after her 2010 complaints and began working as the legislative director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said Ranker continued to make advances while also treating her with disdain, threatening to cut the department’s budget, looking up her salary, telling her she was overpaid, examining what state authorizations allowed her job in the first place and threatening to cut programs important to her.
In 2012, Ranker served as chair of the Senate’s Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee, which would oversee much of her agency’s work. She said Ranker also threatened to publicly embarrass her and made it difficult to do her job.
“It was making my job unbearable,” Larson said. “I couldn’t function because I was in a spot where there was nothing I could do.”
She provided copies of a text exchange to The Times in which Ranker seemed upset that she hadn’t testified in his committee, and then threatened to work to eliminate the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which had appointed Larson’s boss. She said the challenges continued at least until a Republican-led majority took control of the chamber in 2013.
“Probably one of the best days that I had working for Fish and Wildlife is when Republicans took over the Senate and Sen. Ranker lost his chairmanship and his position of power,” said Larson, who is a Democrat.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Andy Billig, said in a statement that the allegations against Ranker were serious and needed to be fully investigated.
“Once this investigation is complete, the Senate will have the opportunity to view the facts of this case in full and act appropriately based on those facts,” Billig said.
Larson has also reported troubles at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. This year, a former official in the department, Greg Schirato, was convicted of breaking into Larson’s home and raping her after a holiday party in 2014.
With Democrats now back in control of the Senate, Ranker currently serves as chair of the Environment and Tourism Committee and vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee for the environment. He lives with his wife and daughter on Orcas Island while his son serves in the Army, according to his Senate bio.
The Legislature has been grappling over the past year with how to better handle issues of sexual harassment and the power imbalance that may leave people unwilling to speak out about lawmakers who hold sway over them. In the past, the House and Senate have largely used an informal process in which harassment complaints might be handled by partisan staff members.
Lawmakers have been looking to change that, including a Senate plan approved over the summer to hire a human-resources officer to receive and investigate complaints of harassment or inappropriate behavior.
Hendrickson said he expects the investigator to complete the probe into Larson’s allegations in January.
Lawmakers had also approved in November an investigation of Republican Sen. Joe Fain after a Seattle woman said that he had raped her in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in 2007. But after Fain lost a close re-election bid, Republican opposition to the investigation grew, and lawmakers dropped the plan for hiring an outside investigator.