By The Herald Editorial Board
Since the 2020 elections and the onset of the pandemic, state Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, has been among a handful of state lawmakers who have played up their stated — but demonstrably misguided and intentionally obtuse — beliefs that voter and election fraud denied former President Trump of his reelection and that mandates related to the covid-19 pandemic were unnecessary and denied basic freedoms to Americans.
Up to a point, such beliefs are their mistake to make, but Sutherland has crossed a line where his actions in support of his political positions have violated the state House rules of behavior and potentially of Legislative ethics, calling into question his fitness to continue as an elected representative for the 39th Legislative District.
Friday, Brian Dean, chief clerk of the House, issued a six-page letter of reprimand to Sutherland, following an investigation of an altercation with the House chief of security on the Capitol grounds earlier this month and Sutherland’s actions and statements following the confrontation.
On March 5, with less than a week remaining in the session, Sutherland was denied access to the Capitol building where his office is located after failing to get a rapid test for coronavirus, a requirement of House protocols for this year’s session. When approached by the House sergeant of arms and reminded that he could not be admitted without the results of a covid test, Sutherland yelled “F*** you, Sergeant!” and continued to berate the security official — including calling him an idiot — until walking away.
Sutherland followed that incident with contradictory statements to investigators that, the report found, showed an attempt to “soften” the appearance of his exchange with the security chief. But among the contradictory statements is video of Sutherland from that same day during a conservative rally on the Capitol grounds where Sutherland — nearly screaming with a hoarse voice — that he had been denied entry into the building. “Then they almost arrested me an hour ago. The sergeant at arms. I looked at him — excuse my French — (and) I said, ‘F*** you, you’re not going to shut us down.”
Not content with an attempt to excuse his own behavior, Sutherland filed a complaint against the security chief. While the security officer admitted to responding with similar language, the investigation found other statements by Sutherland against the officer were not corroborated by witnesses or camera recordings.
That earned Sutherland further reprimand: “(Y)our filing of the complaint and media statements against staff who participated in protected activity is retaliatory in nature and is prohibited.”
Sutherland has been directed to attend a refresher course on the House’s workplace rules for respectful behavior — a course he attended when he first joined the chamber way back in 2019 — and is also required to attend approved “constructive conflict coaching,” at House expense, before June 30. If not completed by that date, his access to staff would be restricted.
His actions also were referred for review by the Legislative Ethics Board for potential further action.
Notably, Sutherland’s behavior also drew a rebuke from the legislative leaders in his own party: “We reviewed the information involved and it’s clear that Robert’s actions do not reflect well on him or the caucus,” the leaders wrote in a joint statement. “He was not respectful in his interactions with the Sergeant at Arms and created a hostile work environment. This is unacceptable.”
Sutherland has previously drawn criticism — and a talking-to from House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox — after his statements on Facebook after the 2020 presidential election where he charged “massive voter fraud” and warned, “Prepare for war. It appears inevitable at this point.”
And that April, during a protest of covid restrictions, Sutherland warned what would happen if he and others wanted to go fishing in violation of the orders: “You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves,” he said, apparently referring to state fish and game wardens and State Patrol troopers.
Sutherland also drew attention when he joined two other state legislators who, at taxpayer expense, flew to South Dakota to attend the bogus Aug. 10-12 election “Cyber Symposium,” called by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, that was chock full of debunked conspiracy theories and ended with some of Lindell’s invited experts calling Lindell’s reportedly hacked data nonsensical.
Sutherland and his two fellow representatives spent a total of $4,361 for flights and hotels, an expense that is allowed when lawmakers can tie reimbursement requests to legitimate legislative work. The reimbursement was approved, but for Sutherland’s part, his South Dakota junket hasn’t produced much in the way of election security elucidation or legislation.
Sutherland was the prime sponsor of four unsuccessful pieces of election legislation this session, one of which would have required proof of citizenship to vote, requiring county auditors to confirm whether registered voters had obtained an enhanced state driver’s license or ID, cancelling the registration of those without the enhanced ID and requiring voters to re-register with proof of citizenship.
Sutherland’s bill would have tossed hundreds of thousands off the voter rolls who have not applied for the enhanced licenses — which aren’t required until May 3, 2023 — and forced them to re-register. Two other bills, seeking to add a quick response (QR) code or watermark to ballots would have added little to election security but would have increased the costs of elections and would have been borne by county election offices and counties’ taxpayers.
Previously, Sutherland’s conservative posturing has played well with most voters in his district; he won reelection in 2020 with 60 percent of the vote. But redistricting has moved the boundaries of his district and — should he choose to seek reelection — will require him getting to know new constituents in Snohomish and Skagit counties.
Voters, current and new, should take a closer look at Sutherland’s record — and his belligerent behavior — and weigh it against that of those who are expected to run against him this year.