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House passes ethics bill on legislative harassment

March 7, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Following a year in which four state lawmakers either lost an election or resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations, the Washington House unanimously passed a measure Thursday that makes such harassment a violation of the state’s Ethics in Public Service Act.

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.

“The #MeToo movement has been a megaphone in revealing the pervasiveness of harassment in the workplace, including right here in this Legislature,” said Democratic Rep. Melanie Morgan, the bill’s sponsor. “While this Legislature has made big strides in improving respectful workplace policies, more work is needed.”

The Ethics 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. Earlier this year, the Legislative Ethics Board issued an opinion related to former Democratic Rep. David Sawyer that concluded that it could not find a violation of abuse of ‘special privileges’ related to the harassment allegations he faced, including that he sent House employee multiple “inappropriate and offensive” text messages over a period of three months. The board, which fined Sawyer $1,000 after finding he improperly required his staff to discuss personal issues related to allegations of harassment against him, wrote that the Legislature should clarify the special privileges statute.

Sawyer lost his primary election last August following an investigation that found he violated the House’s policies on harassment, decorum and ethics. Morgan won his seat in November.

Republican Rep. Gina Mosbrucker said that that the measure will “make sure that we never, ever use our legislative positions for special privileges.”

The bill is among several sparked by the #MeToo movement, which swept through statehouses across the country, including Washington’s, leading to both chambers to create workgroups that involved staff to discuss how to address the issue.

Last month, an investigative report released by the Senate said that Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker, who resigned in January, sexually harassed a former legislative assistant and created a hostile work environment for her once she left to work for a state agency.

Earlier this year, both chambers of the Legislature passed a resolution adopting a code of conduct stating each member of the legislative community is expected to treat others with respect and not engage in discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, or bullying.

The Senate, on a 29-18 vote Wednesday, passed a bill that requires the Public Disclosure Commission to create a training course based on the legislative code of conduct, and to add a place on lobbyist registration forms for lobbyists to affirm they’ve completed the training course. Under the measure, if either chamber finds a lobbyist has violated the code of conduct, their employer will be notified.

Another measure that would have required all three branches of state government to track and submit data regarding sexual harassment of employees never came up for a vote in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The bill would have required annual reports to include a variety of data, including the number of sexual harassment complaints made, how many were investigated, and what kind of corrective action was taken.

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