Politics & Government

House Democrats suspend Tacoma lawmaker from committee post after evidence from ‘credible allegations’

State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma.
State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma. Courtesy

House Democrats suspended state Rep. David Sawyer from his post as a committee chairman Wednesday after party leaders said an ongoing investigation into accusations of inappropriate behavior revealed evidence he fostered a hostile workplace.

Party leaders said in a news release the preliminary evidence "found a pattern of actions toward House staff that created a hostile work environment." The release also says the investigator found evidence Sawyer might have improperly used staff for "personal issues" and made inconsistent statements to investigators, House officials and top Democratic lawmakers.

"There are credible allegations that have been made," House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, told reporters Wednesday, noting he asked Sawyer not to seek re-election in 2018.

An internal panel recommended Wednesday morning that Sawyer, a Tacoma Democrat, be suspended as chairman of the Commerce and Gaming Committee. The order was confirmed in a vote by House Democrats later Wednesday. The vote tally was not released, and House leaders did not make the deliberations public.

Sawyer on Wednesday accused Democratic officials of politicizing the investigation by releasing preliminary results in an effort to force him from office. He also accused party leaders of blocking information from him and the public by releasing only some information from the investigation.

"I support a fair and transparent investigation," Sawyer said in a statement. "This does not reflect that at all."

Sullivan defended leadership's push to suspend Sawyer, saying it got information last week that showed enough evidence for House Democrats to act before the investigation was made final.

The new developments follow a February story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio's Northwest News Network, which detailed accusations from eight women that Sawyer engaged in behavior before and after being elected that they said ranged from inappropriate to harassing.

The allegations included persistent or suggestive electronic messaging, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones. Sawyer, who is not married, denies many of the allegations and has maintained he has been professional and lawful.

Before the Wednesday suspension vote, Sawyer's attorney Beth E. Terrell sent a letter to House officials pushing back against the party's actions and more broadly defending the lawmaker against the allegations.

Terrell wrote Sawyer believes the investigator asked him about only credible accusations, and that, "Significantly, not a single allegation involved improper or unwanted touching, groping, sexual propositions, either express or implied, or pursuit of a romantic relationship."

"Representative Sawyer never intended to make any female colleague or employee uncomfortable, and he is committed to making concrete changes in how he interacts to ensure that his intent is clear in the future," she added.

Sullivan would not say if House Democratic leaders believe there was evidence of sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate behavior in the preliminary findings. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said more information should become available when the report is finalized before the end of May.

A disciplinary vote made against a sitting committee chair is a rare move in the House. An attorney for the chamber could not recall any instance where it had happened, according to a Democratic spokesman.

Until Wednesday, the House had disclosed few details about its investigation into Sawyer's behavior.

It began in February, two days before the story by the three news outlets was published. It initially was an inquiry into an unspecified allegation related to personal-boundary concerns. Sawyer also was restricted from working with his staff. The investigation later was expanded and outsourced to an independent investigator.

Three women who spoke to the news outlets for the February story said they since have been interviewed for the House investigation. Three others said they had not spoken with the investigator. Another two did not respond when asked.

Sullivan said the investigator was only looking at allegations made during Sawyer's time in office. Sawyer was first elected in 2012.

One woman who said she did talk to the House investigator was Anita Yandle, who worked as a lobbyist between roughly 2014 and the 2018 legislative session.

Yandle asked not to be named in the initial story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network, saying she feared doing so would hurt her career at the Capitol and in the political world.

Months later, she provided a statement that included her name to the Democratic organization in Sawyer's 29th Legislative District in which she recounted her allegations and urged members to oppose his re-election bid. The statement was handed out publicly at an April meeting in which the group approved a resolution asking Sawyer to either resign or not run again.

"I naively believed that many women coming together with similar experiences would be believed and heard, with or without names. But I was wrong," Yandle said in a statement Wednesday. "Adding my name to my story is my way of standing by what I said, regardless of its potential impacts on my career."

In the February story, Yandle said she experienced years of on-and-off unwanted attention from Sawyer, including comments about her appearance, after they met in 2011 at a convention for the Young Democrats organization. She was a 19-year-old college student at the time and he was eight years older.

“He says I’m good-looking, beautiful, gorgeous,” Yandle said at the time. “I consider it harassment.”

In response, Sawyer had said he was "flabbergasted" by the accusations and considered Yandle a close friend. She had even gone swimming in the pool at his apartment complex in 2017, he said.

Sawyer, in a text message to the news outlets, denied "having ever engaged in unwanted or inappropriate conduct toward Ms. Yandle."

Candidates for the Legislature must formally file with the state next week. Sawyer has said he will run for office again in 2018, although many in his own party have urged him not to.

Sawyer found the timing suspect.

"The conclusion to be drawn from this process is that it is politically motivated by the candidate-filing deadline next week," he said in his Wednesday statement.

The most recent request for Sawyer to abandon his re-election bid came Tuesday from a coalition of groups including Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, Naral Pro-Choice Washington, SEIU 775 and the Washington Conservation Voters.

On Wednesday, State Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski also called for Sawyer to step aside. Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said by email that the governor "supports the decision" to suspend Sawyer and called the allegations against him "deeply troubling."

Democrat Melanie Morgan, a Franklin Pierce school board member, has attracted support in her bid to upset Sawyer for the House seat in the 29th Legislative District, which includes parts of Tacoma, Parkland, Lakewood, Spanaway and Frederickson.

Some Democrats remain supportive of Sawyer, including his seatmate Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma.

Austin Jenkins of public radio's Northwest News Network contributed to this report.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826 @walkerorenstein