OLYMPIA – Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland acknowledged violating his agency’s harassment policy in 2005 after an employee complained that Sutherland made inappropriate remarks and touched her back, state records show.
The state lands commissioner is the elected chief officer of the Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR’s harassment investigation, revealed publicly Tuesday amid Sutherland’s re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Peter Goldmark, led to Sutherland being re-briefed on agency harassment policies and apologizing to the woman.
Another DNR official, Jon Byerly, also was briefed on harassment policies after the incident because he’d told the woman to fasten more buttons on her shirt, said Bonnie Bunning, the agency executive policy director who headed the harassment investigation. A reminder of harassment policy also was sent to department staff.
State Democrats and Goldmark’s campaign criticized Sutherland over the incident. Sutherland said he’d never intended to harass the woman, and his account of the incident differs somewhat from what the woman and others present told officials.
Sutherland, a Republican, also said the fact that political opponents were offering details of the story to news organizations shows that the incident was being used for political gain.
“I think they’re trying to make it into something significantly greater than what it really is,” he said Wednesday.
The Seattle Times, which reported the incident in Wednesday’s editions after the story surfaced on the liberal political blog horsesass.org, said it “received the documents detailing the allegations from critics of Sutherland who back his Democratic opponent, Peter Goldmark.”
State files show the harassment records were requested in February by Toby Thaler, an environmental attorney who has donated money to Goldmark and other Democratic political causes.
Thaler provided those documents to the Associated Press on Tuesday, and the news cooperative verified the complaint Wednesday by requesting the files from the DNR and interviewing Sutherland and other officials.
Department of Natural Resources officials say the incident is the only harassment complaint lodged against Sutherland at the agency since he first took over the head DNR job in 2001.
The name of the woman who lodged the complaint is redacted from the investigation files. The woman was a new employee at the time of the incident, and left shortly afterward.
The Times said the woman has not filed legal claims or lawsuits over the matter. The newspaper also said she did not respond to interview requests.
The state report said the woman complained of harassment after meeting Sutherland in January 2005. At the meeting, attended by other DNR staffers, records said Sutherland met the woman and then grasped her shoulder, turning her away from him.
The woman said Sutherland felt her back with an open palm, from shoulder to waist. She was unsure why he did that but, according to her notes, was “incredulous” and embarrassed.
Another DNR official, Doug McClelland, confirmed to investigators that Sutherland had felt the woman’s back. McClelland told investigators that the incident “seemed uncomfortable,” leading McClelland to jokingly remark that the woman was physically strong as well.
At that point, the woman reported, Sutherland made another comment to the effect of “could have felt … up front,” or “could have felt the other side,” or “could have felt around somewhere else.”
McClelland told investigators that Sutherland “said something like: ‘she has other nice parts too!’ ”
After the small meeting broke up, the woman said Byerly – her immediate supervisor – acknowledged the incident. But she also said Byerly indicated the woman should button her shirt more.
The woman said she was wearing three layers of tops and a scarf, and did not feel her outfit was revealing, noting she had worn similar clothing for the previous week.
After Sutherland gave a speech at the same event, the woman said he approached her and ran his hand along her waist, saying he might want to come by her work site and see what the staff there did.
Sutherland acknowledged touching the woman’s back, but said that he meant to be lighthearted – joking with the woman, a forester, that she worked in a contentious policy area but “she didn’t appear to have any ‘arrows in her back.’ ”
On Wednesday, Sutherland also said he touched the woman only from shoulderblade to shoulderblade, not down to her lower back. In previous written responses during the investigation, he said the incident as described by the woman “is essentially what happened.”
Sutherland also said Wednesday that he didn’t recall precisely what he said after touching the woman’s back, but might have remarked about how she looked nice. But, Sutherland said, “It certainly was not referring to any of her more exotic parts – good grief, I don’t talk like that. That’s not me.”
Sutherland also said Wednesday that he didn’t touch the woman’s waist after giving his speech: “I think I patted her on the back and said, ‘I’ll see you later. Glad to meet you.’ ”
Sutherland said once a complaint was filed, he instructed staff to handle it “by the book.” He said he was satisfied with the investigation and steps the department took.
“The incident was deemed to be inappropriate, indeed, but not rising to the level of serious discipline,” Bunning, who reports directly to Sutherland, said Wednesday.
The Times said it had found no evidence of other harassment complaints against Sutherland as Pierce County executive, a position he held from 1993 to 2000.
In his interview with the AP on Wednesday, Sutherland said the 2005 incident is the only harassment complaint against him in his entire career, both in the private and public sectors.