Our Voice: Sexual misconduct complaints against lawmakers should be public

Washington state House and Senate members are crafting new sexual misconduct policies for the Legislature outside of the legisltive session.
Washington state House and Senate members are crafting new sexual misconduct policies for the Legislature outside of the legisltive session. AP

Recent news that Washington state legislators are working out ways to handle complaints of sexual misconduct within its own organization is encouraging.

For years, stories of sexual harassment at the state Capitol have been kept quiet, protecting elected officials and dismissing victims.

Now members of the House and Senate reportedly have created separate work groups — outside the legislative session — to ensure a culture change occurs throughout both chambers.

While they are at it, we encourage them to ensure the process they eventually adopt is transparent, and that complaints of inappropriate behavior be public record.

Secrecy makes it easier for those in power to abuse their authority, and that has to change.

The national #MeToo movement of last year sparked a renewed discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace, and led to firings and resignations of dozens of politicians, celebrities and powerful businessmen, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

His fall from grace created a domino effect that carried over to the Washington state Legislature, and it gained momentum after a joint investigative piece by The Olympian, News Tribune of Tacoma and the public Northwest News Network earlier this year.

The combined effort by these news organizations led to revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against former Washington lawmakers, as well as ongoing investigations of current ones.

It now has been acknowledged that former Democratic Rep. Jim Jacks was forced out in 2011 because of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward a staff member at an event outside the Capitol, according to the Associated Press.

In addition, Republican Rep. Matt Manweller and Democratic Rep. David Sawyer have been accused of misconduct. Both deny they acted inappropriately, the AP said.

As it turns out, the past secrecy surrounding the Washington state Legislature is typical throughout the country.

The AP filed records requests with legislative chambers in every state requesting information on the number of sexual harassment complaints made against lawmakers since 2008.

It found that the majority of state legislatures have never bothered to keep public records of sexual misconduct claims.

The AP report said either no tally was kept or the state didn’t legally have to disclose it. The story also said that when legislators fail to “confront the problem aggressively, victims hesitate to come forward for fear of ridicule, isolation and retaliation.”

That is exactly right.

Documentation of sexual harassment complaints against our Washington state legislative leaders was part of the public records request made earlier this year by several media organizations, and later denied.

The blocked request led to a lawsuit in which a Thurston County Superior Court judge sided with the media that state legislators should be held to the same disclosure laws as elected officials who serve on city councils, school boards and county commissions.

Lawmakers claimed the judge’s ruling unworkable, and set out to find a way to exempt themselves from the state Public Records Act. The strategy was thwarted by public outrage and a blitz of news stories and editorials.

The public has a right to know when elected officials are accused of such heinous behavior. As legislators proceed crafting sexual misconduct policies for themselves, they should keep that in mind.