Tacoma harassment cases show inexcusable disparity

(From left) Ron Langrell, former Bates Technical College president, and Rep. David Sawyer, a Tacoma Democrat.
(From left) Ron Langrell, former Bates Technical College president, and Rep. David Sawyer, a Tacoma Democrat.

Until recently, Bates Technical College President Ron Langrell and state Rep. David Sawyer seemed to have little in common except they were both Pierce County leaders, powerful men paid from the public purse and arrived in their respective offices in 2012.

Then a winter of accusations engulfed the two simultaneously. Both Langrell and Sawyer faced harassment allegations and complaints that they’d made several women uncomfortable.

Now, however, their circumstances are quite different. Langrell lost his job. Sawyer remains in his and wants a two-year extension.

Bates trustees fired Langrell Tuesday after he was on paid leave more than a month. He’ll receive a six-month severance payout.

But Sawyer works for the voters of the 29th Legislative District. He plans to run for reelection this year although at least two prominent Pierce County Democrats say he should step away.

There’s another crucial distinction between the two situations:

Langrell’s conduct was investigated by an independent third party and the results were made public through a clear, systematic process. Further, the Bates board acted in the open when it terminated his contract.

Sawyer’s behavior, by contrast, only came to light through media reports with no open process and no assurance that a third-party inquiry will be conducted, let alone released.

This disparity in public accountability must stop, and state legislators must end it.

They passed new laws this year cracking down on sexual misconduct in Washington businesses. It’s high time they demand more transparency of themselves.

The questionable behavior at Bates was properly disclosed after an outside investigation was completed and a detailed report made available through public records request. It included interviews with 28 current and former Bates employees.

The News Tribune used that report as the basis for a comprehensive story by staff writer Candice Ruud, published in mid-February. The purpose was not just to hold the Bates president to account, but also to illuminate the college’s process for dealing with such complaints.

The release of so much information was required by Washington voters, who set a gold standard for their right-to-know when they approved the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) in 1972.

We wish we could say the same about the Sawyer case. But for more than a decade, the Legislature has brazenly claimed to be exempt from the PRA.

That means we generally know nothing about the wrongdoings of legislators unless they break their own disclosure rules or spring a leak. If a Sawyer investigation were done, the public would have no official way of knowing it.

The only reason this story came to light, in a joint effort by Walker Orenstein of The News Tribune and Austin Jenkins of public radio's Northwest News Network, is that they got tips about Sawyer’s alleged behavior from women who work at the Capitol.

Then the reporters did the time-consuming investigative work that’s increasingly rare in today’s challenging media environment. They found and interviewed eight women who complained Sawyer hounded them with after-hours texts or phone calls, other unwelcome attention and comments of a sexual nature.

The news reports are an important but incomplete account of Sawyer’s actions, which appear to fall somewhere on the spectrum between clueless dating tactics and blatant harassment.

The public is much better served when officials comply fully with the PRA, as Bates did.

With the release of the Langrell investigation, a picture emerges of a very tall, 310-pound president who delivered unwelcome bear hugs to female staff, called them “sexy,” veered into profane language and intimidated some of those who worked for him.

And lest you think reporters just like to play “gotcha,” consider that access to complete records also allows them to share mitigating information. In the Bates report, several of those interviewed said they weren’t bothered by the hugs and described Langrell as a kind, friendly boss.

The #metoo movement may hasten the decline of men behaving badly. Certainly, more women feel safe enough to come forward despite the fear of personal or professional repercussions.

But we’re also in a tense transition, a time of defensiveness and counterclaims, which is why the public needs to know the nuances of questionable encounters involving public officials.

Only when we have thorough information — the kind that the Legislature doesn’t want us to have — can we make up our minds and decide whether justice was served.

To that end, a coalition of Washington news organizations, led by the Associated Press and including the TNT, filed suit against the Legislature last year. A judge ruled in our favor, saying lawmakers were violating public records law.

Legislators last month tried to change the law to permanently shield themselves from having to reveal secrets. After a public outcry and a veto by Gov. Jay Inslee, they thought better of it and promised to work with the media and other stakeholders.

We appreciate the cooling-down period, but on this point we remain firm: The public should see staff complaints and full disciplinary investigations and findings involving members of the Legislature. And the Legislature should make that happen sooner, rather than later.

It’s outrageous that elected lawmakers can mostly get away with being seen through a glass darkly, while public employees — including appointed college presidents — are put under a microscope.