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Accused Of Crossing The Line, Washington Lawmaker Suspended As Committee Chair

Washington House Democrats voted Wednesday to suspend state Rep. David Sawyer as chair of the Commerce & Gaming Committee.
Washington House Democrats voted Wednesday to suspend state Rep. David Sawyer as chair of the Commerce & Gaming Committee.

Washington House Democrats voted Wednesday to suspend state Rep. David Sawyer as chair of the Commerce and Gaming Committee, pending the outcome of an investigation into workplace conduct. House leaders said the rare disciplinary vote was prompted by preliminary results of that investigation into Sawyer’s behavior toward women that “confirmed evidence that supported some allegations” against the three-term Democrat.

Among those preliminary findings, according to a statement from the House Democratic Caucus, were that Sawyer: created a hostile workplace, improperly used staff for personal issues and made inconsistent statements about the allegations against him.

In a statement following the vote, Sawyer accused his fellow Democrats of playing politics. "It's not possible to believe or trust in a process that is not transparent or does not present clear facts to the public," Sawyer wrote. "The only conclusion to be drawn from this process is that it is politically motivated by the candidate-filing deadline next week." 

Next week is when candidates for office formally file their candidacy. Sawyer, who is up for reelection this year, is under mounting pressure not to run gain. 

In a letter Wednesday to House administration, Beth Terrell, an attorney for Sawyer, said her client had not been allowed to hear what the preliminary findings against him are and called the decision to suspend him from his chairmanship a “rush to judgment.”

Terrell also wrote that Sawyer had been interviewed by the House investigator for six hours and that "not a single allegation involved improper or unwanted touching, groping, sexual propositions, either express or implied, or pursuit of a romantic relationship."

"This was not surprising since Representative Sawyer has never engaged in such conduct toward any of the women making the allegations," Terrell wrote. "[H]e was and remains genuinely surprised and saddened that these women, many of whom he considered close friends, now say that his conduct made them uncomfortable."

The investigator's final report is expected to be complete by the end of May. If the preliminary findings are borne out in that report, Sawyer could face additional sanctions.

Earlier this year, eight women interviewed by public radio's Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian said Sawyer had crossed personal and professional boundaries, sometimes repeatedly. In a story published in February, the women accused Sawyer of engaging in behavior that ranged from inappropriate to harassing both before and after he was elected to the Legislature in 2012.

Specifically, the women complained of persistent electronic messages, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones.

Sawyer, who is 35 and not married, denied acting inappropriately and told the news outlets, "I believe I have conducted myself professionally and lawfully."

But in contrast to his attorney's assertion that he never pursued a romantic relationship, Sawyer acknowledged that mixing dating and politics is a "tricky space to operate" that can lead to "miscommunications."

Five of the eight women interviewed by the news outlets about Sawyer spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared damage to their careers or retaliation. One of the unnamed women was a lobbyist who said she experienced years of on-and-off unwanted attention from Sawyer after meeting him at a Young Democrats’ convention when she was a 19-year-old college student and he was eight years her senior. That woman is Anita Yandle. The news outlets are now naming her because she subsequently signed a letter detailing her allegations against Sawyer.

In her April letter to the 29th Legislative District Democratic Party Organization, the district Sawyer serves, Yandle said that Sawyer “has been harassing and gaslighting me for seven years.” Yandle also accused Sawyer of regularly commenting on her physical appearance.

Sawyer previously said he was “flabbergasted” by Yandle’s allegations and noted that last summer she came to his apartment and went swimming in the complex pool. In her letter, Yandle said she went to Sawyer’s apartment because “his victim-playing led me to again try to forgive him.”

In a statement Wednesday, Yandle said, “Adding my name to my story is my way of standing by what I said, regardless of its impacts on my career.”

For his part, Sawyer said, “I deny having ever engaged in unwanted or inappropriate conduct toward Ms. Yandle,” adding that he considered her a “close friend.”

Yandle is one of three women who spoke to the news outlets for the February story who said they have since been interviewed for the House investigation. Three others said they had not spoken with the investigator. Two of the women did not respond when asked.

In February, Sawyer told the news outlets that he had previously been counseled by a House lawyer about how his behavior toward a female staffer might be construed.

The current investigation into Sawyer began later that month when fresh allegations were made against him related to personal-boundary concerns at work. In response, Sawyer was restricted from working with his staff as House officials began their review which ultimately led to the hiring of the Beresford Booth law firm to conduct the external investigation that’s now underway.

The vote to suspend Sawyer from his chairmanship came less than a week before candidates formally file their candidacy for office. Sawyer has indicated he plans to run again, although he's been discouraged to do so by several fellow Democrats.

He also faces a primary challenge from Democrat Melanie Morgan, a school board member, who has already picked up endorsements from Attorney General Bob Ferguson and state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, also of Tacoma.

This week, a coalition of groups including Naral Pro-Choice Washington, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, Washington Conservation Voters and SEIU 775 signed a letter to Sawyer that said they could no longer support him and urged him to not seek reelection.

Following the vote Wednesday, Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party also called on Sawyer to "step aside, take responsibility for his action, and not seek re-election." 

A spokeswoman for Democratic Governor Jay Inslee called the allegations against Sawyer "deeply troubling" and said the governor supports the decision to suspend Sawyer from his chairmanship. 

Other Democrats, including Sawyer's seatmate Rep. Steve Kirby, have continued to support Sawyer in recent weeks.

While the House Democratic Caucus did not release details on how many members voted to suspend Sawyer's chairmanship, in his statement Sawyer said there are "those who disagree with the Leadership's narrative and agenda." 

State Rep. Shelley Kloba, the vice chair of the Commerce and Gaming Committee, will assume the chairmanship during Sawyer's suspension. 

Walker Orenstein of The News Tribune and The Olympian contributed to this story.

*This story has been updated 

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network