Tacoma Lawmaker Faces Suspension From Chairmanship Over Misconduct Claims

May 4, 2018

Leaders of the Washington state House Democratic Caucus are recommending that state Representative David Sawyer of Tacoma be suspended as chair of the Committee on Commerce and Gaming. 

The recommendation, announced Friday evening, comes in the midst of an outside investigation into whether Sawyer, a three-term member of the House, violated respectful workplace policies.

"HDC leadership learned today that the investigator has confirmed evidence supporting some allegations," said an unsigned letter from House Democratic leaders to their caucus members and shared with the media. "We discussed the preliminary findings and decided that the caucus needs to take initial formal action."

The letter did not detail the preliminary findings, but said the HDC Committee on Committees will meet next Wednesday followed by a meeting of the full House Democratic Caucus to vote on the recommendation.

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and Majority Leader Pat Sullivan did not immediately respond to messages left on their cell phones requesting additional details. Reached by phone Friday evening, Deputy Majority Leader Larry Springer said House Democratic leaders were briefed earlier in the day by the House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean on the preliminary findings of the investigation.

"There was cause for concern," Springer said. "And so we just felt a recommendation would be appropriate that we suspend, not remove" Sawyer from his chairmanship pending the outcome of the external investigation.

Springer said the investigation has taken longer than expected, but that it was important that it be "thorough and fair." He would not provide details about what prompted Democratic leaders to recommend Sawyer be suspended from his chairmanship. 

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.  They accused him of engaging in behavior that ranged from inappropriate to harassing both before and after he was elected to the Legislature.

Specifically, the women complained of persistent electronic messages, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones. Sawyer denied acting inappropriately and said, "I believe I have conducted myself professionally and lawfully."

In response to the recommendation that he be suspended from his chairmanship, Sawyer said in a text message Friday evening, "The Legislature needs to set an example and not politicize the process and let the investigator finish her job."

During the 2018 legislative session, Sawyer was restricted from working with his staff as House officials began a review of more recent allegations made against him related to personal-boundary concerns. In February, Sawyer also told the news outlets that he had been counseled by a House attorney in recent months about how his behavior toward a female staffer might be construed.

Sawyer is running for re-election this year. In recent weeks, prominent Democrats, including Congressmen Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Denny Heck of Olympia, have signed a letter calling on him to abandon his bid. In addition, Democrats in Sawyer's legislative district approved a resolution in April on a split vote calling on him to resign or at least not seek re-election. Other Democrats though have rallied to Sawyer's defense.

The meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday comes on the eve of candidate filing week which begins May 14. That's when candidates must formally declare their candidacy for office. Sawyer faces a challenge from Democrat Melanie Morgan, a school board member in the Franklin Pierce District, who has already picked up endorsements from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and state Representative Laurie Jinkins, also of Tacoma. 

Tacoma News Tribune reporter Walker Orenstein also contributed to this story.

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