Rep. Sutherland investigated after argument with security chief

By his own admission, he used profanity in a heated exchange. He might have violated state House rules.

Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland

OLYMPIA — An investigation is under way to determine if state Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls violated the Legislature’s Code of Conduct when he allegedly berated and swore at the House chief of security on the Capitol grounds this past weekend.

Sutherland and Sean Hartsock, the chamber’s director of security, became embroiled in a heated exchange Saturday as the lawmaker sought access to the Legislative Building because he was barred from his office for not taking a required COVID test.

A short time later, in a scene captured on video, an amped-up Sutherland railed against the prohibitions in a speech to hundreds of conservative activists rallying at the Capitol.

“I got locked out of the building because I didn’t get tested for COVID. I don’t have COVID. I’m healthy,” he shouted. “Then they almost arrested me an hour ago. The sergeant-at-arms. I looked at him — excuse my French — (and) I said, ‘(Expletive) you, you’re not going to shut us down.”

Sutherland, a Republican, said he was sorry if his comments to the crowd offended anyone. He’s not prepared to apologize to Hartsock, who he insisted threatened him first and was the verbal aggressor.

“There were some expletives shared by the two of us,” Sutherland said. “I am willing to shake his hand and say we had a bad day. We both could have handled it better.”

Sutherland’s behavior before and at the rally is the subject of the probe.

“We take this situation seriously in terms of him yelling obscenities at a staff member. That would be a serious breach of the respectful workplace policy and code of conduct,” said Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House of Representatives.

Hartsock did not return a phone call or email request for comment.

Generally speaking, Dean said, House employees are not authorized to speak to the media, nor are they authorized to speak on behalf of the institution.

The House’s human resources director, Niki Pavlicek, is conducting the investigation. Dean said he hoped it can be concluded quickly, though it might not be done before the legislative session ends Thursday.

Under the Legislative Code of Conduct, lawmakers are expected to “conduct themselves with self-awareness, self-respect, and professionalism.” It also says they should “treat all others with respect, dignity, and civility, regardless of status or position” and refrain from hostile or intimidating behavior.

The respectful-workplace policy is a separate document covering all House employees, including representatives. It prohibits one from harassing, intimidating or acting disrespectfully toward another employee.

Sutherland met with the investigator Tuesday.

“I think the conversation went fairly well,” he said. “I explained I had a simple request to get into the building and I had a difficult time communicating that to him.”

Asked about Hartsock’s version of events, Dean said that because the investigation has not yet concluded, “I would prefer not to get into the details at this stage.”

If Sutherland is found to have violated either or both, there could be repercussions. Actions could be taken by the chief clerk, his caucus or the entire House.

For example, Dean could limit his access to staff. Sutherland’s caucus could remove him from committees, and the full House could censure him — though it is very unlikely.

Matt Shea, a former Republican lawmaker, got booted from the caucus in 2019 but not censured after a House-sanctioned investigation concluded he had engaged in an act of domestic terrorism and intimidated political enemies. Sutherland sat next to Shea in 2020, the latter’s final year in the Legislature.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told reporters Monday he had seen the video and is “trying to understand what the facts are.”

“I’ve had a conversation with our caucus. The tone and the language used reflects badly on all of us,” he said. “We don’t believe that you should cuss or swear at people working for the House.”

With the pandemic, lawmakers have faced various rules this session.

When it began, for example, proof of vaccination was a requirement to be on the floor. Sutherland and other Republican lawmakers opposed the mandate and sued. That case continues.

As COVID infections declined, House leaders lifted the vaccination requirement and refocused on free tests Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A negative test provided one access to their office and the floor for that day and the next day, or the weekend if you got tested on a Friday.

Sutherland came in early Friday afternoon and, with the help of security, moved some equipment into his office. “Our interactions were very polite and courteous,” he said of security.

He didn’t get tested before the vendor closed at 3 p.m. Security then escorted him out of the building. The ban covered the weekend.

Sutherland said he thought he had until 5 p.m.

On Saturday morning, he said, he returned to retrieve some items and relocate to the Legislative Building, also referred to as the Capitol. He said he tried his key card but the doors were locked, so he returned to the House office building to ask security for assistance getting in.

Turns out the building was open to the public. He said he didn’t try those entrances.

“While I was waiting outside for approximately 30 minutes I was suddenly and unexpectedly approached by someone in street clothes who was acting very unprofessionally towards me, yelling at me saying I wasn’t allowed in any campus buildings and even threatening me through intimidation of violence,” Sutherland wrote in a statement shared with caucus leaders.

Eventually, he said, Hartsock “began back-peddling on his story and informed me that I could indeed enter the Legislative Building.”

Sutherland blamed Hartsock for fomenting the argument.

“His poor demeanor towards me got the better of me and I eventually responded in like manner. And for that I would gladly apologize for allowing myself to be drug into basically a shouting match,” he wrote in the statement.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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