By Mike Baker / The Seattle Times
In the summer of 2006, a political-science student at Central Washington University found herself at a bar with her professor — now state Rep. Matt Manweller.
The student, in an interview with an investigator hired by the school in 2012, recounted that Manweller had repeatedly suggested that they get drinks together. Feeling under pressure and expecting to need Manweller’s future letter of recommendation, the student said she reluctantly agreed to meet him at the Starlight Lounge in Ellensburg. She said she brought a friend to the meeting to be safe.
Records show that in separate interviews as part of an investigation, the two women generally agreed about what happened next: Manweller ordered drinks and began asking his student about her sex life. Then he propositioned the two women to have a threesome.
The case is just one in a series of questions Manweller, 48, has faced about his interactions with female students during his time teaching political science at Central Washington, according to records newly obtained by The Seattle Times under public-disclosure law. Since joining the university in 2003, Manweller has been investigated twice for allegations of sexually harassing students, including the previously unreported investigation involving the woman and her friend at the bar.
Manweller, R-Ellensburg, denied the allegations and criticized the university’s handling of the investigations. He also questioned the motives and timing of his accusers: The initial investigation was launched as he was making his first run for the Legislature.
“I’ve never propositioned a student,” Manweller told the Times. “I’ve never offered a student a grade or anything in exchange for a sexual favor.”
But in both inquiries, outside investigators concluded there was evidence to suggest that he had violated the school’s sexual-harassment policy.
The school did not discipline him after the first investigation, citing the length of time that had elapsed since the time of the events, according to records. After the second investigation, the dean of the school’s College of the Sciences issued a letter of reprimand to Manweller, delayed his promotion to full professor and ordered him to undergo sexual-harassment training.
With the national spotlight now fixed on workplace sexual harassment, those past allegations against Manweller have relevance as lawmakers, lobbyists and administrators in Olympia have begun discussing how to reform the culture of the Capitol to better protect those who may be victimized by sexual harassment or assault.
As the assistant Republican floor leader in Olympia and the ranking member on the state’s Labor and Workplace Standards committee, Manweller has a voice in those issues and broader legislation dealing with issues such as sexual assault. Earlier this year, a bill to allow victims of sexual assault to seek permanent — instead of temporary — protection orders passed the state House by a vote of 75 to 22. Manweller was among the “no” votes.
Manweller, who is married to his second wife, continues to teach at Central. He said that while his promotion was delayed, the university ultimately made him a professor, gave him back pay and paid for his attorney’s fees. Linda Schactler, the chief of staff at the university, confirmed that he was promoted and received back pay, but said the reports speak for themselves.
“We are confident of the quality and the thoroughness of those investigations,” she said.
Manweller was elected to the state House in 2012, listing a series of conservative credentials, including as a commentator for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He said no sexual-harassment complaints have been made against him in the Legislature.
In an email, House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said he can’t comment on personnel issues.
“Therefore, I cannot confirm or deny the existence of informal complaints against specific members of the House,” Dean wrote.
One female lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her career, recalled times when Manweller made comments about her physical features. Another lobbyist recalled Manweller making pointed remarks about what she was wearing. The women asked that The Times not publish specific details about the comments that might identify them in order to protect their working relationships in the Capitol.
Manweller said he couldn’t comment in detail without knowing the identities of the lobbyists, but said he doesn’t deny giving compliments.
Two other female lobbyists, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is an informal network of women in Olympia who prepare newcomers by warning them about spending time alone with Manweller and with some others with reputations for various types of inappropriate behavior. None of the lobbyists the Times spoke to had filed complaints against him.
Manweller said he expected the Legislature would take some actions involving sexual harassment in the coming weeks, but only because everyone there is terrified by what he characterized as a mob mentality that he compared to McCarthyism.
“There’s going to be an overreaction like there always is,” Manweller said. He said he expects the biggest cultural change will come from how men in Olympia go about their work, with colleagues taking fewer meetings with women or not having closed-door meetings.
Manweller said the vast majority of interactions that he’s seen in Olympia are respectful, professional and appropriate.
The woman who says she was pressured to get drinks with Manweller relayed her story after an initial investigation at CWU had explored similar issues.
In the first investigation, conducted in 2012 as he was running for office, an outside law firm explored concerns about his conduct between 2006 and 2009 but primarily focused on the situation of one student.
That student, who graduated in 2007, said that in the summer of 2006 she was taking an independent-study course with Manweller. At one point, when she went to discuss her research paper with Manweller in his office, she said he closed the door, pulled up a chair close to her and told her there was a “sexual energy between them that was undeniable.”
Manweller, who was still married to his first wife at the time, pressed further, according to the woman’s account, telling the student, “Let’s be honest, you don’t want to write the paper and I don’t want to read it, we can discuss it orally.” She says he then put his hand on her leg and kissed her. The woman said she pulled away and left the office. She later said she didn’t file a formal complaint because she was worried it would make it difficult for her to graduate or that Manweller wouldn’t give her a letter of recommendation for law school.
Manweller spoke with the investigator but initially said he didn’t know who the student was — something the investigator found questionable, according to records. Manweller told the investigator he was being targeted because of his campaign for the state House at the time.
In an interview with The Times for this story, he said the encounter never happened and said there was no evidence to support the allegation. He said the university also determined that it was unsubstantiated.
But the investigator concluded that there was “evidence to suggest” that Manweller had violated the university’s sexual-harassment policy, according to the investigator’s report. The dean of the College of Sciences, Kirk Johnson, wrote to Manweller that disciplinary action wouldn’t be pursued due to the length of time that had elapsed since the events.
“I want to make it clear that I have serious concerns about the behaviors described in the Report,” Johnson wrote. Johnson, who is retired, did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment for this story.
Other allegations surfaced in the report but appeared to lack sufficient documentation or interviews. One woman who had been a student in Manweller’s class reported that a peer had confided in her that she “really didn’t have to do anything” to get an A “if I gave him a blow job,” according to the records.
Jen Ham, the woman who reported the comment, said she couldn’t remember the student’s name. But, in an interview with The Times, she said it was clear that the student wasn’t making a joke.
Manweller said those allegations were also untrue and said they had originated from people who were politically opposed to him.
The second investigation against Manweller appeared to begin after news of the first investigation became public.
The woman who said Manweller had pushed her to get drinks at the Starlight Lounge told the investigator Manweller had a reputation among students for liking younger women.
In fact, Manweller had met his first wife while he was a 28-year-old teacher and soccer coach at a Utah high school and she was a sophomore and the soccer team’s student manager. In separate interviews, Manweller and his ex-wife both told The Times they didn’t date until after she turned 18, though he says they didn’t date until after she graduated. She says they began long-distance dating while she was still a senior and after he had moved to Montana for graduate school. They married in June 2000, shortly after she graduated. Manweller said the quick marriage was “impulsive,” done before a judge in part to dodge scrutiny from his wife’s parents.
“They weren’t thrilled,” Manweller said. His wife filed for divorce in 2008.
Whether his political-science student knew this part of his history or not, she later told investigators she took his class but made sure to avoid wearing low-cut shirts or skirts.
After the night at the bar, the student said she skipped her next class with Manweller. After the class that she did attend, she said, Manweller followed her off campus. The woman said Manweller was stalking her and that she eventually made it home and put a chair up against the doorknob.
Manweller disputed the woman’s account, saying she had initiated discussions of her personal life in meetings. He said he never asked out the student and had simply encountered the student at the bar. He said the student again began discussing her personal life there, including details about her boyfriend.
“I probably said something that was taken poorly, or out of context, and caused offense,” Manweller said in a written message to the university. “If that is the case, then I sincerely apologize.”
Manweller, in an interview, pointed to differing accounts the woman gave to investigators about how he stalked her — in one, taking them through a Starbucks, in another, across campus — and said it indicated she was “not exactly the most reliable witness.”
Manweller also questioned the woman’s mental health — noting she had a counselor. Dr. Patricia Cole, a clinical psychologist, told The Times the woman was one of her clients. She declined to discuss specific details about the student or identify the woman but said the student had been reluctant to report anything about Manweller. Cole said she didn’t think the student was fabricating the story.
The second investigation examined another reported relationship that Manweller had. In that one, a student reportedly raised an issue about Manweller during an exit interview with the director of her Interdisciplinary Studies Program, according to documents. That director, Alena Yastchenko, recalled to the investigator that the student said Manweller began sexually harassing her in 2010, sending inappropriate text and voicemail messages.
Yastchenko recalled that the student reported going to Manweller with the voicemail messages and threatened to go public with her problems if he did not stop harassing her. Yastchenko said she encouraged the student to file a complaint but that the student was fearful Manweller would not provide a letter of recommendation.
Yastchenko reported the details of the exit interview to others at the university, according to records. A top human-resources official reported then speaking to the student and getting a similar account.
But after that, when the outside law firm hired to investigate the Manweller allegations tried to get the student to discuss the matter, the student demurred and said that she had already dealt with the matter. Then, a few weeks later, the university received a declaration signed by the student and sent by the law firm representing Manweller. In that, she said she did “not consider any conduct by Dr. Manweller as harassing.”
The names of the students and former students are redacted in the reports released by the university, but Manweller helped a Times reporter get in touch with the woman who signed the declaration. She said the university officials got it all wrong and that she had concerns about a male student in Manweller’s class — she declined to give his name — that had sent her a series of Facebook messages. The woman said Manweller never harassed her.
Manweller acknowledged in an internal memo that he did send texts and leave messages on the student’s phone — but it was related to schoolwork. He also said they became friends on Facebook.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Manweller accused the university of trying to coerce the woman into making her allegations by offering her a letter of recommendation and threatening to subpoena her phone records. Schactler, the school’s chief of staff, said it didn’t seem conceivable to her that the university would have coerced someone to make false statements.
The dean, Kirk Johnson, issued a letter of reprimand to Manweller after the second investigation, which ended in 2013, citing the alleged incident in the Starlight Lounge and his contact, including on Facebook, with the student who signed the declaration.
“I find these incidents to be unprofessional and have the appearance of an abuse of power,” he wrote in a letter to Manweller. He mandated that Manweller undergo sexual-harassment training and wrote an internal objection to his promotion.
Johnson also said in the letter that the former chair of Manweller’s department and a counselor had met with him in June 2007 “regarding interactions, perceived and otherwise, with female students.”
“There is the appearance that you still do not understand boundaries and how to maintain those boundaries,” Johnson wrote.
Manweller appears to have continued building social- media relationships with young female CWU students, becoming friends with them on Facebook and liking their personal photos on that platform and Twitter.
Manweller said he maintains some of those social- media relationships because he advises the university chapter of college Republicans, which includes a social- media presence that he helps monitor. He took issue with the university’s scrutiny of the issue, saying it wasn’t against the rules to connect with students outside the classroom or comment on their Facebook posts.
“I’ll occasionally hit the ‘like’ button,” Manweller said. “But, again, that’s not a crime.”
Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.