OLYMPIA — Senate leaders yesterday issued a rare public reprimand of one of their own, declaring that Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, created a "hostile work environment" with attempts to retaliate against an aide who had complained about working for her.
That ignited an angry response from Roach, who said she was the one being retaliated against for trying to uncover wrongdoing.
The Senate Facilities and Operations Committee said in a letter hand-delivered to Roach yesterday that there had been two previous warnings dating to 1998 that "your conduct towards Senate staff violated the Senate's respectful workplace policy."
"You are hereby reprimanded for this behavior and admonished to adhere to the Senate's respectful workplace policy," stated the letter, signed by Senate leaders including Republican Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, and Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, the minority leader.
The reprimand was approved unanimously by the bipartisan committee.
Senate lawyers began reviewing her office after two of Roach's aides quit Jan. 14.
"We hope the employees will feel they received the support they are entitled to from the Senate leadership and we want to move on," said Committee Chairwoman Sen. Pat Hale, R-Kennewick.
But Roach said she has done nothing wrong and will fight the reprimand. One of her two attorneys said that could include lawsuits against Senate leaders.
It's her former employees who should be in trouble, she said, for violating state e-mail policy.
In a sometimes-angry conversation with an office full of reporters last night, Roach said she is a good boss, though demanding.
"The teachers I remember were the tough ones, not the easy ones," she said.
She displayed poster-size enlargements of e-mail to and from her former staff that she said violated state policy for computer use. She said they were discovered by an aide hired after the two staffers quit last month.
The e-mails are at times profane, personal and insulting to Roach. The names of the senders and recipients were blanked out.
"All I did was take the shroud of secrecy off of what was going on here," Roach told reporters. "I don't think that was wrong.
" ... What ought to be happening here is there ought to be a full investigation of the e-mail."
Secretary of the Senate Milt Doumit suspended Roach aide Kelly Hinton earlier this month for digging up and turning over to Senate officials the personal e-mail from the departed aides. One aide was transferred to another job and the other quit.
Hinton's actions have been referred to the Legislative Ethics Board. Roach yesterday said Hinton began looking through the e-mail of the two former aides to see what they were working on and to answer correspondence from constituents. The secretary of the Senate, she said, provided passwords.
Examples given to reporters yesterday showed a mixture of office gossip and mild sexual content in the e-mail.
Shawn Newman, one of Roach's attorneys, said West had told Roach there could be criminal violations related to looking at and revealing e-mail.
West said last night there has been no criminal referral, but a memo prepared by the Senate's Republican and Democratic counsels — and given to Roach — said review of a Senate employee's private e-mail potentially violated state and federal privacy laws.
Hale said the Senate began looking into Roach's office after aides Tabitha Wells and Daniel Honkomp quit on the same day.
"We found there were unpleasant things and things that you would prefer were not said or done," Hale said.
But none of the allegations rose to the level of creating a hostile work environment. That changed a few weeks later when an anonymous e-mail was sent to reporters alleging that Roach had pulled a gun on Wells.
Roach has told several versions of the gun story but now says she never pulled a gun on anyone.
The day the anonymous e-mail surfaced, Roach led a group of reporters to confront Wells, who she thought was spreading the rumor about the gun. She stopped short of a confrontation when a reporter pulled her aside and said she suspected the wrong person.
That incident "had the effect of creating a hostile work environment for Ms. Wells and was a retaliatory act against Ms. Wells for raising allegations of a hostile work environment," according to the reprimand.
It also says Roach repeatedly demanded that Wells be fired from the job in the Senate Republican caucus that she was transferred to. The demands "are also properly viewed as retaliatory acts ... for raising allegations of a hostile work environment," according to the letter.
Roach denied she tried to get Wells fired from her new job.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said Senate leadership didn't have the authority to issue a reprimand. He said the action "creates a Gestapo-type atmosphere in the Washington State Senate. It makes me sick to my stomach."
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