Robert Sutherland gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, 2022, in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald) 
Robert Sutherland gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, 2022, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Robert Sutherland gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, 2022, in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald) Robert Sutherland gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, 2022, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Sutherland to pay $2.5K to settle ethics violation complaint

A state panel alleged the Republican lawmaker broke ethics rules in a March confrontation with a House security official.

OLYMPIA — Republican state Rep. Robert Sutherland will pay $2,500 to settle a complaint alleging he violated state ethics law last March, when he berated and swore at a House security official and then bragged about it at a political rally hours later on the Capitol campus.

Sutherland, of Granite Falls, agreed to pay the sum under an “order and stipulation” reached Wednesday evening with the Legislative Ethics Board investigating the allegations. The deal led the board to cancel a Thursday public hearing where Sutherland intended to argue his case. If unsuccessful, he faced a potential fine of up to $5,000.

The stipulation says Sutherland “maintains his innocence” but agreed that if the “matter were to go to hearing, the evidence available to the Board is such that the Board could possibly conclude that he violated the Ethics in Public Service Act.” Sutherland will pay a civil penalty of $1,500 and costs of $1,000, per the final order.

“I had no hope that today’s hearing would have produced a ‘not guilty’ verdict from the Legislative Ethics Board (LEB) because those who get to decide the verdict are the same LEB members who found me guilty back in August, not the Administrative Law Judge,” Sutherland wrote in an email. “It would not have been a fair hearing decided upon by an impartial ‘jury.’”

The settlement concludes a second investigation into Sutherland’s actions the morning of March 5, 2022.

Sutherland and Sean Hartsock, the chamber’s director of security, became embroiled in a heated exchange when the lawmaker sought access to a building he had been barred from entering because he had not taken 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 said he was sorry if his comments to the crowd offended anyone but didn’t apologize to the security official who he insisted threatened him first and was the verbal aggressor.

Three weeks later, following an investigation, Sutherland received a written reprimand for violating the Legislative Code of Conduct and the respectful workplace policy that prohibits all House employees, including representatives, from harassing, intimidating or acting disrespectfully toward another employee.

Bernard Dean, chief clerk of the House, forwarded his findings to the Legislative Ethics Board to consider if Sutherland’s behavior violated the ethics law.

In late July, the board “determined that reasonable cause existed” that he violated a prohibition on lawmakers using their position to secure “special privileges” and had “engaged in behavior that constitutes harassment.” That July order cited his attempts to enter a building a day after he had been removed from it for failing to submit to a COVID test and for swearing at a legislative employee who was trying to assist him.

On Aug. 19, Sutherland was notified of the decision by email. That correspondence included the draft board opinion along with a proposed stipulation. He had a month to sign it, otherwise the board would conduct a public hearing.

He didn’t sign it, setting the stage for a showdown Thursday — which was averted.

Sutherland, in October, said he wanted a hearing “instead of pleading guilty to things that are untrue.”

He said then that he intended to use the time “to expose the corruption and show those who may care just how unfair the process is. Exculpatory evidence is simply ignored while twisted facts and lies are without question accepted. I hope to demonstrate this to the public. They know things are bad in Olympia, but do they know why?”

Sutherland lost re-election in November. His last day in office is Monday.

He’s now eyeing a run for Snohomish County auditor.

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

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