Samantha Kersul, director of development and operations for the campaign arm of Washington state’s Senate Democrats, in Seattle. Kersul has alleged former Olympia state Rep. Brendan Williams pushed her up against a wall and “shoved” his tongue down her throat in Olympia in 2009. (Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network)

Samantha Kersul, director of development and operations for the campaign arm of Washington state’s Senate Democrats, in Seattle. Kersul has alleged former Olympia state Rep. Brendan Williams pushed her up against a wall and “shoved” his tongue down her throat in Olympia in 2009. (Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network)

Sexual harassment, assault allegations rock state Capitol

Political leaders concede reform is needed, but the legislative workplace presents challenges.

By Walker Orenstein / The News Tribune

OLYMPIA — The state Capitol was thrown into tumult last week by sexual misconduct allegations against two former lawmakers and a parade of women criticizing the Legislature’s workplace culture, prompting politicians to call for change.

Within two days, four women publicly accused former Olympia-area state Rep. Brendan Williams, a Democrat, of behavior such as sexual harassment and assault in a story by The Associated Press, and Democratic leaders revealed for the first time that former Rep. Jim Jacks was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward a female staffer before he resigned abruptly in 2011.

New allegations of inappropriate touching and sexual harassment against Jacks came to light soon after.

Those revelations followed a Tuesday story on the culture at the Capitol by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network, in which women described a range of inappropriate behavior — from butt grabs to inappropriate comments — which they have dealt with on the job.

Many women working at the Legislature had spoken out earlier on Facebook, prompted by the #MeToo social media campaign that was sparked after allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, cable news host Bill O’Reilly and others.

“Absolutely I think there’s more appetite for change after this,” said state Rep. Noel Frame, a Seattle Democrat. In the aftermath of the story in which women accused others at the Capitol of butt patting, Frame posted on Twitter: “PSA: If this happens to you, you march right into my office and tell me so I can help.”

“I didn’t trust the institution”

The most detailed allegations to surface were those against Williams, who served from 2005 to 2010 before leaving office to work at the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. He’s since left the state and is president of a New Hampshire-based health care organization.

Former state Rep. Brendan Williams. (Courtesy photo)

Former state Rep. Brendan Williams. (Courtesy photo)

At the Capitol, Williams worked on health care issues, and his website says he was the prime sponsor of legislation creating sexual assault protection orders and a bill seeking to help investigation of child sex abuse. Both were signed into law.

Samantha Kersul, director of development and operations for the campaign arm of Washington state’s Senate Democrats, is one of the women who accused Williams of inappropriate conduct.

In 2009, Kersul was in between political jobs after time as a staffer at the Legislature and a campaign operative.

On the night in question, she and some friends were hanging out with a trio of state lawmakers at a club in downtown Olympia.

At one point, when Kersul got up from a booth to use the bathroom, she said Williams followed her, pushed her up against a wall and “shoved” his tongue down her throat before she could reach the restroom.

“I remember pushing him off of me and yelling at him and telling him how unwelcome and disgusting I thought he was for doing that,” she said during a Tuesday interview in Seattle.

Despite her protests, Kersul said, Williams continued to block her exit from the area until other patrons at the club approached and asked if everything was all right. None of the other lawmakers or her friends saw the incident, she said.

Once back at the Legislature, Kersul never lodged a formal complaint with legislative administration or Democratic leadership, although she said she warned others to stay away from Williams and made it clear she didn’t want to work with him.

“I didn’t trust the institution,” Kersul said. “I didn’t trust the process. I didn’t trust there was a way for me to come forward and not have it in some way jeopardize my ability to advance in my career.”

Williams sent an email Thursday to the News Tribune and The Olympian saying he wouldn’t be “addressing or correcting specific allegations.”

But he added: “It’s clear that outside work my past actions, on a few occasions, caused pain, and I own that responsibility, and sincerely apologize.

“Years removed from public office it’s devastating to think I could have carelessly hurt others, while at work I was standing up for the right things,” he wrote.

“It happened frequently”

On Wednesday evening, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, disclosed new details surrounding the resignation of Vancouver Rep. Jim Jacks in 2011. Jacks was accused of sexual misconduct toward a female staffer and left the Legislature roughly a week later, Sullivan said in a statement and a later interview.

Former state Rep. Jim Jacks. (Washington State Legislature)

Former state Rep. Jim Jacks. (Washington State Legislature)

Previously, Jacks had denied any wrongdoing, and leadership said he resigned for family and personal issues. Jacks told The Columbian at the time he left politics that he was an alcoholic.

Jacks did not respond to phone messages left Thursday and Friday morning, but he emailed a statement to Northwest News Network on Friday saying he has been sober for the past six years.

“I recognize my alcoholism as a result of the incident in 2011,” he said. “I do not drink because I wish never again to cause my family or those around me pain because of my behavior.”

Jacks was first elected in 2008 and in 2011 was vice chairman of a committee in the House called Technology, Energy and Communications, according to a Democratic news release.

Sullivan said more information about Jacks’ resignation was not disclosed at the time to protect the privacy of the woman who accused him. In a Wednesday statement, Sullivan said he wanted to give out more information now “so that everyone in the legislative arena — members, staff and lobbyists — knows that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”

Sullivan’s statement wasn’t the only accusation against Jacks to surface recently.

Former lobbyist Nicole Grant told The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network that Jacks patted her butt as she left his office in 2011. The news outlets did not name Jacks in a previous story detailing that incident since no formal complaint was lodged by Grant and no other allegations against him yet had been made public.

In a Facebook post on Thursday night, lobbyist Rebecca Johnson said Jacks would hug her inappropriately and subject her to other touching that made her uncomfortable.

“It happened frequently,” she said in an interview with the three news outlets Friday. “Every time, not an accident.”

Northwest News Network also reported Friday that a former legislative assistant for House Democrats accused Jacks of sexually harassing her for almost two years before he resigned. The woman, who was not named, said House administration did not adequately help her when she reported the alleged harassment.

Lawmakers respond

The Washington House and Senate have explicit anti-harassment policies that prohibit behavior, such as unwelcome compliments and verbal or physical expressions that are sexual in nature or gender-based. They also require staff and lawmakers to attend respectful-workplace training periodically.

Both chambers outline a range of options for addressing violations of the harassment policy. In the Senate, these include engaging a facilitator, raising the issue with an immediate supervisor or requesting a formal investigation by the Senate leadership.

The House has a two-step process that begins with “informal” problem resolution. The next step is a more formal grievance procedure that results in an investigation.

Study of the effectiveness of those policies and procedures has been under way since January in the state House.

On Thursday, Sullivan said once the review is done, he plans to convene lawmakers and staff to discuss what changes are warranted and how to implement them.

Sullivan said the allegations surfacing this week boost momentum for reform.

“Absolutely it has to be addressed,” Sullivan said.

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib told The AP he has been thinking about how to update harassment policies in the Senate, too. Habib acts as president of the Senate.

Frame said proper change still might be difficult. Policies are needed that “address the unique nature of our workplace,” she said.

Some of those unique facets, according to more than 10 women who work at the Capitol interviewed by The News Tribune and The Olympian this week: Elected officials can’t be fired; lawmakers have inherent power imbalances over lobbyists trying to get legislation passed; and legislative staffers are at-will employees and often report directly to lawmakers.

Some expressed concern that some officials in nonpartisan legislative administration, which acts as a human resources department, are hired and overseen by partisan staff.

Many women said they worried that coming forward with complaints would harm their legislative work or lead to them being blacklisted from future jobs.

House and Senate administration have said they’re neutral and take complaints seriously and as confidentially as possible.

State Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, also joined the chorus of those asking for change. He said he was particularly taken aback by women who told the three news outlets that they informally warn each other of certain men to avoid being alone with at the Capitol.

“When there’s such predatory behavior that women are physically scared to be alone with a legislator or a lobbyist, that is way too far,” he said.

Some ideas have been thrown around on how to improve. A more neutral human resources process is one thing lawmakers might consider, Sullivan said.

Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat from Kent, said on Twitter she would push to make certain records regarding complaints about lawmakers available for public disclosure.

The Legislature has declined to disclose records after recent requests for complaints of harassment and more against lawmakers, saying they’re exempt from the Public Records Act. They did release the statement about Jacks after records requests and questioning by The AP, and they said no formal records existed in the case.

A coalition of news organizations, including The News Tribune and Daily Herald owner Sound Publishing, is suing for access to those records, saying they’re not actually exempt from disclosure.

Palumbo said voters should know if a lawmaker has been disciplined for misbehavior by administration and also if the legislator “is a predator that women are scared to be around.”

If voters knew, those lawmakers might lose elections, he said.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, a Republican from Snohomish, said in a statement he is also open to revamping sexual-harassment policy, although he said the existing one is “strong.”

“We will continue to evaluate this policy over time,” he said. “If there’s a way to improve it, we will.”

Frame, Palumbo and others said they saw the series of misconduct allegations this week as a potential for broader cultural change that doesn’t come with legislation.

Johnson, the lobbyist, said the stories emerging this week are a new occurrence in Olympia.

“As someone who has now been around for 10 years, I hear conversations happening in a much more real way than I ever have before,” she said. “I see the opportunity to help both for myself and my colleagues who I’ve been with this whole time but also for the women coming up behind us.”

Kersul said the culture at the Capitol must change, but so must the current process for reporting complaints.

“There has to be a way for staff, for lobbyists, for members, for all victims to come forward safely and not feel ashamed or threatened,” she said.

Walker Orenstein writes for The News Tribune of Tacoma.

Daily Herald editor’s note: The Herald has published guest commentaries by Brendan Williams on a range of subjects, including health care and legislative issues. His last commentary was in July. He is not a regular columnist and was not paid for his commentaries.

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