Local news

Marr denies disregarding harassment

OLYMPIA – State Senate candidate Chris Marr on Friday denied allegations that he and other managers at a local auto dealership ignored, for years, the sexual harassment of a saleswoman by male colleagues.

In a lawsuit filed last year, former Spokane Lincoln-Mercury saleswoman Dawn Fowler said that she was subjected to frequent harassment and discrimination by co-workers while selling cars at the dealership from 1997 to April 2005. At the time, Marr was part-owner, vice president and then president of the dealership.

After six months of legal skirmishing and arbitration, in which public access to documents is severely restricted, the company settled Fowler’s claim late last year for an undisclosed amount. The case was closed in January.

In court documents, Fowler said she repeatedly complained to managers but that they – including Marr – did nothing to stop it.

Not true, Marr said in interviews Friday.

“I would categorically deny that it was anything that was brought to the attention of managers,” he said. As a manager and a business owner, he said, he’s always had zero tolerance for sexual harassment. He said he was dragged into the suit simply because he was upper management.

“These are the types of things that in a large organization we deal with,” Marr said of the allegations. “Could there have been actions that were inappropriate by an employee? Yeah. And we have standards to deal with it.”

Marr, a Democrat, is running a high-stakes campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Brad Benson. He said he found the timing of this story unfortunate.

“It seems consistent with a national atmosphere of sliming, if you will, at the last minute” of a campaign, said Marr, who sold his interest in the dealership this spring.

A newspaper reader recently brought the case to the attention of a reporter. The individual, who requested anonymity, has no known connection to the Benson campaign and according to state campaign finance reports has made no political contribution to any Washington candidate – Republican or Democrat – in at least the past six years.

Benson said he’d heard nothing about the case until a reporter called Friday morning.

“It would be kind of hard to comment, because I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

In court documents, Fowler alleges a litany of harassment from a couple of co-workers, most of it by an employee identified as John Barthole. Among the allegations: sexually explicit verbal abuse, sexual comments about Fowler’s body and inappropriate physical contact.

At one point, she said, a manager hired a stripper for a sales meeting that she – the only female employee there – was required to attend. Another manager, she said, had a computer screen saver of nude women.

As for Marr, Fowler said in her lawsuit that he “frequently asked female employees if they ‘enjoy sex’ and made comments about other female employees’ sex life.”

Asked if that was true, Marr said absolutely not.

“The answer is categorically no,” he said. He also said he knew nothing about any stripper at a sales meeting.

Marr said the lawsuit appears to have been sparked partly by a “toxic relationship” between Fowler and one of the defendants’ families after an alleged assault between their children.

“It was an ugly situation that dragged the employer into it,” he said.

Marr said that he and fellow owner Ray Kish decided to settle the case to spare Barthole months of depositions and trial. Barthole, Marr said, suffers from cancer.

Barthole, reached at home Friday, said he has nothing to say about the situation.

Fowler has an unpublished phone number. Attempts to contact her through an out-of-state family member were unsuccessful.

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