Politics & Government

Investigator: Tacoma lawmaker violated harassment, ethics policy

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

House Democrats on Monday released a summary of an independent investigation that found state Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, broke ethics and harassment policy with a wide range of behavior, including inappropriate text messages to staff and romantically pursuing a coworker who made it clear she wasn't interested.

The conclusion comes after a roughly four-month investigation in which attorney Elizabeth Van Moppes interviewed 24 people and scrutinized Sawyer's emails, documents, text messages and more to research allegations stretching back to the fall of 2017.

In the end, Van Moppes said Sawyer violated policy with his behavior toward three women who work at the Capitol, likely creating a hostile work environment for one based on gender and another based on sexual orientation. None of the women involved were identified in the report.

Sawyer sent one of the women "inappropriate and offensive text messages" over a three-month period and "used his position over her" as a lawmaker to "force her to respond to him," the report says.

"He disregarded her stated requests that he 'shut it down' and pressed her with unwanted attention," Van Moppes wrote. "Both his conduct and his intentions were sexual in nature," according to the report.

In a statement Monday, Sawyer did not dispute the findings of the investigator or House officials, saying it is "clear that I messed up and that it's time for me to acknowledge some personal mistakes."

"Clearly my actions made people who work with me uncomfortable," he said.

Sawyer also noted he was "relieved" that other "outrageous claims and allegations circling about me are not present" in the report. He did not say what those allegations are.

Before the report, Sawyer insisted his behavior has been professional and lawful. He has also accused Democratic leaders of politicizing the investigation and concealing information in an attempt to force him from office.

In addition to Van Moppes' five-page summary, House Counsel Alison Hellberg wrote a one-page set of findings based on the full investigation with broader conclusions about Sawyer's behavior.

Hellberg wrote Sawyer texted and "drunk dialed" multiple women at inappropriate hours. She also said Sawyer responded to cautions by lawmakers and staff about his behavior by saying he was "not the one who would get fired."

Van Moppes also concluded Sawyer wrongly used state resources by forcing two House staffers to strategize about an impending story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio's Northwest News Network related to his conduct.

The investigator wrote he "required" one House employee to spend "substantial" time discussing his frustrations about the upcoming story and made her discuss updates he received from friends contacted by the three news outlets.

"He contacted her after hours, on her own unpaid time, to discuss the confidential and personal details of the situation," the report says. "He required that she support him with the problems he was having with his personal press."

Sawyer also "made multiple inappropriate and offensive comments and jokes" about the sexual orientation of the woman, Moppes' summary says.

According to the report, the second woman forced to strategize with Sawyer about the upcoming news story says Sawyer "detailed his dating and sex life within Washington State politics" at least once. After House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told him this was "improper" and he apologized, he still asked if she wanted to chat about his strategy with the press, the report says.

Once published, the February news story detailed accusations from eight women that Sawyer engaged in behavior that ranged from inappropriate to harassing before and after he was first elected to the Legislature in 2012.

The allegations, made by a range of Capitol workers and others such as lobbyists, included persistent or suggestive electronic messaging, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones. Sawyer has denied many of those accusations.

The House inquiry was limited to Sawyer's time in office, although Van Moppes wrote she "heard a number of allegations" against Sawyer from before he was elected. It's unclear whether the investigator looked into or received allegations made by people who are not employed by the Legislature.

House Democratic leaders on Monday issued a letter to staff and lawmakers, saying Sawyer should be permanently removed as chairman of the House's Commerce and Gaming Committee based on the results of the investigation. Sawyer was suspended from that post in early May after top Democrats said preliminary evidence from the inquiry was enough to prompt action.

Permanently taking away Sawyer's chairmanship would typically need approval from an internal committee and then a full vote from House Democrats. Neither has been scheduled, although Sawyer said in a text message to The News Tribune and The Olympian he would voluntarily surrender the position.

Democrats also forwarded their ethics concerns to the Legislative Ethics Board, barred him from having a legislative assistant and said restrictions he has from working with staff will continue. Those sanctions began when the investigation into Sawyer's conduct began in February, two days before the story by the three news outlets.

Sullivan said Monday he has not asked Sawyer to resign, although he is supporting Democrat Melanie Morgan in the 2018 election in Sawyer's 29th Legislative District. Others from his own party also have called for Sawyer to step aside in the race. The 29th District includes parts of Tacoma, Parkland, Lakewood, Spanaway and Frederickson.

Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington, said Democratic leaders aren't currently looking to expel Sawyer but will reassess the situation this fall if Sawyer is re-elected.

"The sanctions that we laid out are very tough," he said. "I think many of us wish he would have listened to our advice and not filed for office."

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, told reporters Monday she was "relieved" to hear Sawyer's apology, calling it a "different approach" than he had been taking.

"I don’t know that’s going to change the position of many members of the caucus who would like to see him resign," she added.

House Democrats so far have declined to release the full report made about Sawyer's behavior, citing privacy concerns for the women making accusations. The News Tribune and The Olympian have requested the information under Washington's public records laws. Sawyer has asked for the completed investigation, too.

Lawmakers often have withheld investigations such as this one based on their interpretation of state law. A coalition of news groups led by the Associated Press and including The News Tribune sued the Legislature over the practice.

A trial judge in January ruled legislative records must be released to the public, but the decision is currently under consideration by the state Supreme Court after an appeal by the state.

In her report, Van Moppes' also recommended anti-sexual harassment reforms at the Legislature, including more formal harassment training and some internal changes to avoid appearance of conflict of interest in investigations. Many women have said they don't trust the reporting process at the Capitol and have experienced harassment and sexism on the job.

Sawyer, in his statement, urged the Legislature to implement Van Moppes' suggestions.

"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 said, referring to the women whose accusations were detailed in the investigation summary. "I commit to taking these findings to heart and change my behavior to earn back the trust I have lost."

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826 @walkerorenstein