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Sexual assault allegation investigated after Democratic meeting

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 24, 2017, 2:47 p.m.

FILE – The historic downtown of Walla Walla, shown Tuesday, June 27, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – The historic downtown of Walla Walla, shown Tuesday, June 27, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A longtime progressive activist was removed from party positions earlier this year when reports surfaced alleging he sexually assaulted a young volunteer after a state Democratic Party meeting in Walla Walla.

Police in Walla Walla investigated reports that the volunteer, a college student who isn’t old enough to legally drink, had consumed so much alcohol she was incapable of providing consent, and therefore was sexually assaulted when she had intercourse with the man, who is nearly 30 years older. Eventually, police and prosecutors decided against filing charges, because they determined they wouldn’t be able to get a conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

Both the alleged victim and the man dismissed from his post have questioned aspects of the state party’s handling of the incident, which occurred after the Washington Democratic Party’s quarterly meeting in Walla Walla, where state, county and legislative district party officials had gathered on April 21 and 22.

The young volunteer consumed multiple alcoholic drinks at a pair of post-meeting gatherings and the local party officials present didn’t intervene – even though many knew she was underage. The young woman later went to the hotel room of the King County Democratic Party officer, whom she knew from work on progressive causes, including the state Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

The two had sexual intercourse that he insists was consensual, although in hindsight “a mistake.” She later became convinced she was too drunk to give her consent and was manipulated by someone she previously trusted.

Walla Walla police eventually determined the evidence didn’t clearly show the alcohol rendered her so mentally incapacitated – a key element of a charge of second-degree sexual assault – that he would be convicted.

But even before that happened, the longtime activist was forced out of key positions in the King County Democratic Party and the Washington Progressive Caucus.

The Spokesman-Review has a policy of not identifying possible sexual assault victims. Because the party official was neither arrested nor charged with crimes, the newspaper is not identifying him by name.

After hearing reports of the incident, Washington Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski called him and told him to resign both positions. He did, saying later it was clear he’d be forced out if he didn’t.

“I didn’t feel like I had any options,” he told The Spokesman-Review recently, adding he’d worked his way up to those positions over some 13 years in politics.

The young volunteer said party leaders were initially supportive, promising “anything you need.”

But that support later waned.

“It was the right action to ask (the party official) to step down,” she said. “When it actually came to needing help, they weren’t available.”

Progressive activists

The young volunteer got involved in politics in the summer of 2015 to support Sanders for president. She became acquainted with the King County party official, who was among the earliest of Sanders’ supporters in Washington, through social media, and worked on a project with him. They had only met in person once or twice before attending the state party’s quarterly meeting in Walla Walla.

Months before the meeting, Podlodowski had decided it would be alcohol-free, a departure from past practice. Although drinking is not standard during actual business the party conducts during the days, it was common for candidates, campaigns and some local party organizations to have “hospitality suites” at a centrally located hotel the evening between the daytime work sessions.

The suites – a fixture at such gatherings for both major political parties – are a chance to recruit volunteers for an upcoming campaign or connect with like-minded activists from around the state.

Although Podlodowski nixed the hospitality suites, the meeting schedule listed them for Friday night and explained how to set one up. That was a mistake made by a staff member using an old template, state party officials later said. None were arranged.

That disappointed some attendees, who took to Facebook to declare the lack of hospitality suites on Friday night as “ridiculous” or note their absence with sad-faced emojis.

But the ban on alcohol ended when the quarterly meeting concluded around 5 p.m. Saturday. There was a fundraiser at a local wine-tasting room near the Marcus Whitman Hotel, where the meeting took place. Some party officials had alcohol with dinner, then gathered at the “Bernie house,” a bed-and-breakfast where many former Sanders supporters were staying, and later moved to a room in the Red Lion where the Young Democrats were gathering. Alcohol was flowing freely at both places.

Although accounts by people who attended one or both gatherings differ in police reports, the young volunteer estimates she had at least six drinks, five of them in a short period of time at the Bernie house before going to the Red Lion.

No one said stop

Although most of her party acquaintances knew she was too young to legally drink, apparently no one told her to stop, according to police reports.

Matthew Sutherland, an announced candidate for Eastern Washington’s 5th District Congressional seat, told police he noticed the young activist, who was a volunteer for his campaign, drinking.

“Matthew was curious why somebody thought that was a good idea,” the police report noted, “but he didn’t say anything because he was (the same age) at one time.”

Sutherland would later buy some of the alcohol that was consumed at the Bernie house where the young activist was drinking, and told police he noticed she was “stumbling and slurring her words.”

Asked later why he didn’t prevent someone he considers a friend who is underage from drinking, Sutherland told The Spokesman-Review: “I was drinking as well, so I wasn’t exactly around as an adult supervisor.”

He did ask later that night if she had a way to get home safely, he said, adding that focusing on how much the young volunteer drank is a way of shifting the blame from her alleged assailant.

State party officials said they had no way of policing the gatherings after the formal meeting at the Marcus Whitman Hotel concluded.

“The private event where this incident occurred was not a state party event and none of the state party’s staff were involved with it or at it,” Ansley Lacitis, the state Democratic Party communications director, said in an email.

The state party is committed to promoting a culture of respect, a safe environment and “a harassment-free environment for everyone,” she said.

Being a friend?

Earlier Saturday evening, the young activist said she had been in the lobby of the Marcus Whitman Hotel and was upset about something on social media. The older party official had come up and put his arm around her to comfort her.

“I thought he was just being a friend,” she said.

At the Red Lion, they talked for a while, and as the party official prepared to leave for his room in that hotel, she said he kissed her on the cheek.

She didn’t think much of it and later told police she “just thought he was drunk like everyone else” although some of her friends told her it was “gross.” She later messaged him to ask where he went; he told her his room number and invited her up.

When she mentioned the invitation to her friends, she said some were noncommittal and said she should “do whatever she wanted.” One encouraged her to go. Eventually, she went to his room, because she came to the conclusion she wasn’t in shape to drive to her hotel which was about 15 minutes away.

“I just needed a place to crash. I wasn’t about to drive,” she said recently.

The party official refused to talk to Walla Walla police on the advice of an attorney, but in a recent interview with The Spokesman-Review insisted he was surprised when the young activist showed up at his hotel room door. He wasn’t drunk, and had less than a full glass of wine the entire night. (Editor’s note: In an email Thursday, he disputed an earlier version of this story that said he knew she was drunk.)

“I was worried that if I sent her off, she would just get in her car and drive,” he said. He invited her in and asked her to put down her beer and drink water. She didn’t drink any more alcohol while in his room, they both agreed.

After a short time, she said she lay down on the bed with the intention of going to sleep. But they began talking, then kissing and eventually had sexual intercourse. He insisted everything was consensual, even though “it may not have been a good idea.”

The difference of nearly 30 years in their ages “doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to hurt her. I was not going to be rough.”

Although he’s married, the party official said his wife is “OK” with him having sex with other women.

The next morning

The young activist thought that night that the sex was consensual, but the next morning she was embarrassed and just wanted to get out of his room and back to hers, she said. They agreed that no one should find out, and she said she’d meet him for breakfast, but later texted to cancel.

“I didn’t really want anybody to know, because I felt like it was a bad decision on my part. I was blaming myself,” she said.

Back at her room, friends asked where she spent the night. She was initially vague but they pieced together what had happened and said he may have taken advantage of her because she was too drunk to consent to having sex. Gossip about the incident spread through the hotel where party members were packing to leave. The young activist remembers walking down the hall and seeing two people talking intently, and then stop as she got closer.

“It took me about a whole day to go back through everything,” she said.

Word quickly got to state party officials, who told the King County party official to resign.

“I thought about (refusing), and I was told pretty clearly that if I did not resign, there would be a recall election,” he said.

The next day, the young woman talked to someone on the college campus she attends, and on Tuesday she went to Planned Parenthood, which referred her to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where samples were taken for a rape kit. A campus police detective notified Walla Walla police of a possible sexual assault in their city.

Walla Walla police Detective Katherine Loney interviewed the young activist with a campus advocate present, then contacted many of the people she mentioned were present at various times during that Saturday night.

One person Loney did not interview was the former King County party official. She got a letter from his attorney who said he was following her advice not to speak to law enforcement and not to consent to a search.

“If he needs to appear in court at some point, he will do so voluntarily,” attorney Aimee Sutton wrote. “Please spare my client the inconvenience and embarrassment of arrest.”

In her report to Walla Walla county prosecutors at the end of her investigation, Loney wrote she had doubts whether they could prove second-degree sexual assault. The evidence didn’t clearly show a key element of the crime, that the young activist was so intoxicated to be “mentally incapacitated” and thus unable to consent to having sex.

County Prosecutor James Nagle agreed, saying there was not enough proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to submit the case to a jury. He said later he based that decision on a review of the evidence and a career of “trying lots of cases and losing some.”

When she got Nagle’s letter, the young activist said, “I felt invalidated.”

After the older party official was forced out of his position with the King County Democratic Party and the Progressive Caucus, the young activist said she hoped they wouldn’t come in contact at future party events.

“I did take a step back (from politics) for about a month,” she said. “I was overwhelmed with people asking me ‘What happened?’ ”

Aftermath

One of the main things the activist wanted was to make sure no one else found out, she said. But just when she felt gossip about the incident was going to blow over, she got word that someone had filed a public records request for the police reports. She asked if her name could be redacted and was told that would take a court order, because she didn’t make the request when first talking to police.

She didn’t know how to find a lawyer and file the proper paperwork in time to block the release of her name in the police report.

She also received emails from the older party official’s wife saying she needed to leave him alone. “I tried to tell her that he’s the one she needed to talk to,” she said. Eventually they broke off all contact on social media.

“I’m trying to not let it affect me,” she said, although she added her therapist said she’s showing early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I’m just ready for people to stop talking about it.”

The party official said his eviction from his leadership posts has been “pretty devastating.” Most of his friends were connected to his political activity and many haven’t heard his side, he said.

He also believes the state party’s stance – that the gatherings on Saturday night with alcohol were not official party events – is really just a way of saying “we don’t have to deal with it.” But that doesn’t mean he’s trying to avoid responsibility, he added.

“It was absolutely a mistake, and I fell on my sword,” he said, adding he hasn’t talked with the young volunteer since that weekend.

And if he could, what would he say?

“It was a mistake, and that I’m very sorry and I hope she can find it in her heart to forgive me,” he said. “And I wish her luck.”


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