Ethics board dismisses staffer complaint against lawmaker

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, was accused of workplace harassment, among other things.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The Legislative Ethics Board on Monday dismissed a complaint against state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, even though it found reasonable cause that she violated laws protecting confidential medical information by disclosing the disability of a legislative assistant to others.

In a seven-page opinion, the board said reasonable cause did not exist in two other potential violations. The board noted the complaint of workplace harassment was not a violation since a new law that took effect last year addressing that issue was not retroactive and did not apply for the time frame of this case.

The opinion, signed by chairman Eugene Green, says that even though reasonable cause was found in one of the potential violations, “the Board retains the discretion to dismiss an ethics complaint when it finds, after consideration of all of the circumstances, that further proceedings would not serve the purposes of this chapter.”

The state’s Ethics in Public Service Act prohibits state employees and officers from using their positions for personal gain and prohibits things like receiving gifts or outside compensation for official duties, or using one’s position to get special privileges. Under a measure that the Legislature approved last year, sexual harassment and harassment that creates a hostile or intimidating work environment was added as potential violations of “special privileges” that the Legislative Ethics Board could investigate. That law took effect on July 27, 2019.

The board received the complaint against Santos in September 2019. The complainant served as Santos’ legislative assistant from November 2018 until he resigned in June 2019. According to the opinion, the complainant said he worked longer hours than allowed under a work plan the House administration placed Santos on in 2018. The legislative assistant also said he was frequently criticized and said he felt Santos’ communication with him was demeaning.

The complainant did not tell anyone at the House that he “consistently felt demeaned and intimidated” by Santos until just before he decided to resign.

“He said he did not report his distress because he had no confidence that anyone would do anything to help him other than tell him that he needed to adapt his work practices to meet Respondent’s expectations,” the opinion states.

Santos said that as a committee chairwoman juggling multiple issues, she has high expectations of herself and her staff, but said she never intended to be hard on those she worked with or supervised.

“I’m very sorry that this occurred and I’m very sorry that there were clear miscommunications and misunderstandings that led my former staff person to believe that I was being demeaning and disrespectful because that was never my intent,” she said.

The opinion notes that before the complainant started working for Santos, he was diagnosed with a disability and prescribed medication. His disability was not disclosed in the report. When Santos learned of his disability in early 2019, the complainant said she told him that their working relationship would be difficult. The report notes Santos revealed the nature of the complainant’s disability to three people in the House, including House Clerk Bernard Dean. Santos said she regrets sharing that information but said she was seeking support on how to better work with the staffer.

The board wrote that it was “troubled by the ease with which House staff appeared to share the fact of Complainant’s disability with others.”

“The Board urges House administration to better train its staff and legislators to ensure that all supervisors have adequate training in the proper handling of disability issues in the workplace.”

The board also ruled there even though Santos’ “office management expectations may be excessive and overly burdensome,” it didn’t violate the law against using state resources for private gain. As for the application of House Bill 2018 to the complaint, the board wrote that to apply it retroactively “could result in holding Respondent responsible for actions that were not a violation of the special privileges section at the time the action complained of occurred.”

In an email, Dean wrote that the House was aware of the Legislative Ethics Board complaint “and reviewed the allegations concurrently with the board.”

He said the House is currently working on material concerning the treatment of medical information for lawmakers and staff supervisors, and he said it will be incorporated into future trainings for those groups.

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