OLYMPIA — State Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls received a written reprimand Friday for violating legislative conduct rules when he berated and swore at the House chief of security on the Capitol grounds earlier this month, and later tried to retaliate against the employee.
In a six-page letter, Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House, describes “inappropriate behavior” by Sutherland and criticizes him for giving “multiple contradictory versions” of events in a seeming attempt to absolve himself.
“Your response to date reflects a lack of accountability as you continue to blame others for your actions,” Dean wrote. “Therefore, we believe this reprimand is necessary to impress upon you the serious nature of your actions.”
Sutherland must take a “refresher course” on respectful workplace expectations and attend “constructive conflict coaching” approved and paid for by the House, according to the reprimand letter. This must be done by June 30, 2022, or his access to legislative staff will be restricted, Dean wrote.
In addition, because Sutherland’s actions may violate a state law barring harassment of a staff member by a legislator, Dean said he is “forwarding this matter to the Legislative Ethics Board for further consideration.”
Sutherland can appeal but he said Friday he will not.
“The version of events in their rationale were not accurate in my opinion,” he said. “I would refute most of what they said but it is inconsequential because the conclusion is what I expected. I used a bad word.”
Dean launched an investigation after learning of a heated exchange between Sutherland and Sean Hartsock, the chamber’s director of security.
According to the investigation, Sutherland sought to get inside the Legislative Building to work because he was barred from his office for not taking a required COVID test. Just after 11 a.m., Hartsock, referred to in the report as the sergeant at arms, approached Sutherland to ask how he could help.
At that point the lawmaker yelled an expletive at him.
“You continued swearing and behaving inappropriately toward him until he walked away a few minutes later,” Dean wrote.
A short time later, in a scene captured on video, an amped-up Sutherland railed against the prohibitions and the security chief, 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 at the rally. “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 later said he was sorry if his comments to the crowd offended anyone. He would not 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 in a March 8 interview with The Daily Herald. “I am willing to shake his hand and say we had a bad day. We both could have handled it better.”
In the course of the investigation, Sutherland’s story kept changing, but the employee’s did not, Dean wrote.
“Your multiple contradictory versions (statements on the rally podium, two written statements, investigative interview, media statement, and media interview) of the sequence of the interaction appear to be continually refined to reflect your actions in a way to absolve you of your conduct,” he wrote.
When Sutherland learned of the investigation, he said he initiated a counter-complaint, contending the employee was the instigator.
Video footage and witness statements did not corroborate Sutherland’s allegations “and your complaint is deemed unfounded,” Dean wrote. “Additionally, your filing of the complaint and media statements against staff who participated in protected activity is retaliatory in nature and is prohibited.”
The investigation found Sutherland’s actions ran afoul of two policies governing the behavior of legislators and staff.
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.
Leaders of the House Republican Caucus issued a joint statement following release of the investigation.
“We reviewed the information involved and it’s clear that Robert’s actions do not reflect well on him or the caucus,” they wrote. “He was not respectful in his interactions with the Sergeant at Arms and created a hostile work environment. This is unacceptable.”
“The House Republican Caucus feels strongly that it needs to promote the most respectful workplace possible, especially with regard to our staff,” it concluded. “And we expect Robert to do the same moving forward.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dospueblos.
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