Gov. Mike Lowry disclosed Friday he has asked for an independent investigation into allegations by his former deputy press secretary that he had sexually harassed her.
The woman, Susanne Albright, declined Friday to give details of her allegations and said she never intended for the issue to become public. But she said she left the governor’s office because of a “clear - and I repeat, very clear - and persistent pattern of unacceptable behavior toward me” by Lowry.
Lowry said he was “stunned” by her allegations.
“Never did I do anything that was intended to offend her in any way, and never did she voice such concerns to me,” he said in a statement.
The governor’s office disclosed the allegations and the investigation in response to a public records request by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Albright’s name was blacked out in all the documents that were released.
Albright has not filed any formal complaint against the governor, although she has retained an attorney. The governor’s staff voluntarily began its internal review after hearing that Albright had told co-workers she felt harassed.
According to the documents, Albright consistently declined to make a formal sexual harassment complaint. She requested, and was granted, a leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Albright, who was a fierce defender of Lowry’s policies in her role as one of his four spokespersons from the summer of 1993 until last month, said Friday that the governor’s conduct led her to quit her job.
Lowry’s behavior, she said, “made it impossible for me to continue working there.”
She refused to be specific about his conduct, but the documents released Friday describe the allegation as sexual harassment, and Albright’s lawyer, Larry Finegold, said the governor’s behavior was unambiguous.
“If the governor did not know that his behavior was absolutely improper, then we are more concerned about him and fearful for all the women who work with him,” Finegold said.
Finegold said Albright would not talk about details, saying that doing so would be traumatic.
“It’s been our hope that these matters could simply be resolved quietly and privately and without the glare of publicity,” he said. “We did not want her to go through the kind of atmosphere that surrounds other victims of these kinds of cases.”
The current investigation comes less than a year after a female state trooper alleged that the governor inappropriately pressed his body against hers during a fingerprinting session. An investigation by the attorney general’s office did not determine whether the allegation was true. Lowry and one of his aides denied the trooper’s allegation.
In September, as requested by the state trooper, the governor and his staff underwent sexual harassment training.
“I think many of us came away more than a little awed by some of the obvious and not-so-obvious dangers, and the subtle situations where one can hurt or be hurt by words and actions,” Lowry wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
Last week the governor’s chief spokeswoman, Anne Fennessy, said that no “formal” allegations had been made concerning the governor’s behavior toward Albright. She offered no clarification, and did not mention the ongoing investigation.
Lowry’s written statement said he had “worked closely and successfully” with Albright and that he was surprised by her allegation.
The governor said Albright told other people in the office about her “feelings,” but that “she repeatedly declined assistance in raising her concerns under our office policies, and did not let anyone raise her concerns with me.” When he learned about the allegations, Lowry said he “instructed my staff to undertake whatever review was appropriate.”
The governor’s staff declined to identify the independent reviewer, other than to say she is an attorney operating independently of Lowry’s office. She is not being paid, his staff said.
The governor’s executive counsel, Jenny Durkan, said she and Lowry would not discuss specifics of the case because they wanted to protect Albright’s privacy and the integrity of the investigation. But she disputed Albright’s characterization of the situation.
“It is absolutely inaccurate to describe this as a clear and persistent pattern of behavior,” Durkan said. “I don’t think the facts bear that out, but I think we need to leave the resolution of that issue to the person who is doing the independent review.”
Durkan also rejected Finegold’s assertion that the governor has a problem working with women.
“That is inaccurate and unfair to all the members of the governor’s staff, whether they be women or men,” she said. “This governor has been committed to equal opportunity for all individuals, and the number of women he has in high positions in his office clearly demonstrates his commitment to women’s advancement in the workplace.”
The governor’s closest advisers include three women: Durkan, Fennessy and deputy staff director Lorraine Hine. Durkan and Fennessy have known Lowry for many years, and each has said she does not believe the governor has sexually harassed women.
Lowry’s office has been communicating with Albright’s attorney for at least two months. The attorney wrote a letter to Lowry on Dec. 1, about a week after Albright went on medical leave for unspecified reasons.
In the letter, Finegold said his client “has been and continues to remain on medical leave as a result of your conduct. At this time, I cannot estimate how much longer she will remain on medical leave.”
The letter warned the governor that any job-related actions against Albright could be viewed as illegal retaliation, adding, “Neither you or your staff should contact (her) directly.”
Durkan responded by assuring Finegold that Albright was still welcome as an employee in the governor’s office, but added:
“While we assume the leave is
being taken for legitimate personal and medical reasons, we do not concede it is necessitated by the actions of anyone in the governor’s office, including the governor.”
Durkan’s letter noted that Albright “does not wish to make a complaint under our office’s sexual harassment policy.” She said Albright’s consistent refusal to make a specific or formal complaint against Lowry “has made it difficult for us to assess the level of response or investigation required.”
Durkan wrote, “I indicated to her that even if she was unwilling to proceed formally or share specifics with me, I believed that her concerns had to be raised with the governor - out of fairness to him, to her, and to the entire office. As I am sure she told you, she finally agreed to this right before the holiday and I did so.”
On Dec. 16, about two weeks after the first letter from Albright’s attorney, press secretary Fennessy wrote a letter arranging for Albright to continue her medical leave “at least through the first of the year.”
Fennessy, who was Albright’s immediate supervisor, sent copies of leave slips for Albright to sign and return. “We understand that (she) believes that her leave is, at least in part, work-related,” Fennessy wrote.
Under state law, state officials are defended against claims and suits by the state attorney general’s office. They must seek the office’s approval to hire an outside attorney for legal representation.
On Jan. 17, Durkan wrote a letter asking Chief Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Mix for advice about how to proceed.
She said she and Lowry’s legal counsel, Kent Caputo, had nearly finished their preliminary investigation of the facts surrounding Albright’s case but wanted to bring in an outside reviewer.
“We and the governor have concluded that retention of an outside party to conduct a review is advisable to ensure full confidence in and credibility of this office’s response,” Durkan wrote.
On Jan. 27, Hine, Lowry’s deputy staff director, signed an agreement with an attorney who offered to do the review for no pay.
“This evaluation must and will be a truly independent exercise to determine what, if any actions by our office are appropriate,” Hine wrote.
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