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Shawn Vestal: The pandemic potty-mouth draws well-earned rebuke from House, party

Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, was reprimanded by the House of Representatives chief clerk for berating and cursing at security officials who would not allow him into the Capitol after he refused to be tested for COVID-19.  (Everett Herald)

As we were reminded last week, sometimes when people act badly, they trot out a raft of self-pitying, self-justifying words right in the place where an apology belongs, in a way that only deepens the original offense.

That’s the case with Will Smith, and his ludicrous, weepy pivot toward God’s plan at the Oscars. And it’s the case in a matter you’ve surely heard a lot less about: Rep. Robert Sutherland’s crude, defiant refusal to follow COVID-19 protocols and to paint himself as a victim of tyrannical security guards.

Sutherland is a pandemic conspiracist from Granite Falls who likes to whip up crowds by insinuating he’s going to start shooting at the government. On March 5, he berated and cursed out the head of Capitol security in Olympia, after he pulled what we in Spokane might call a Bingle, declaring himself above the rules by personal fiat.

Sutherland showed up unvaccinated and without a negative test, against rules about which he had been repeatedly reminded. When he was asked to leave, he freaked out, tried to intimidate a security guard, cursed at the sergeant-at-arms, then went out and bragged about it at a rally an hour later.

This violated rules of conduct for lawmakers, and chief clerk of the House of Representatives, Bernard Dean, issued a six-page letter of reprimand late last month.Dean referred the matter for possible action by the Legislative Ethics Committee for possible violations of state law prohibiting lawmakers from harassing staff members.

“Your response to date reflects a lack of accountability as you continue to blame others for your actions,” Dean wrote. “Therefore, we believe this reprimand is necessary to impress upon you the serious nature of your actions.”

Admirably, the leaders of the House GOP caucus joined in the condemnation, issuing a statement calling Sutherland’s actions “unacceptable.”

Sutherland – who you will not be surprised to learn is a Trumpist election truther – later said in an interview that he disagreed with some of the facts in the letter but that he wouldn’t appeal and would attend a refresher course on how to be nice.

He did glibly acknowledge this, though: “I said a bad word.”

Which is a long way from the real problem.

First things first: The word is not bad. It is a very good word. It is perhaps the best – the most elastic, flexible, potent – word in the language. It’s not a word for all times and seasons, though; like all things with great power, it’s best used sparingly and with good judgment.

You know the word I’m referring to and you know the two-word phrase deployed by Sutherland. It’s the one that causes all the tittering around “Let’s Go, Brandon.” The one that is dubbed as “Forget you!” when a movie like “Goodfellas” is aired on network TV.

Sutherland, according to the six-page letter of reprimand, said this to a security guard. But he didn’t land in hot water for saying a word. He ignored the Capitol COVID-19 protocols repeatedly, argued with and berated a security guard for enforcing those rules, and then, when the sergeant-at-arms arrived to try and handle the ongoing dispute, greeted him with a hearty, “Forget you!”

He then “continued swearing and behaving inappropriately to him until he walked away a few minutes later,” Dean wrote.

An hour later, Sutherland went out and boasted about doing this at a political rally.

“I got locked out of the building because I didn’t get tested for COVID. I don’t have COVID. I’m healthy,” he hollered. “Then they almost arrested me an hour ago. The sergeant-at-arms. I looked at him – excuse my French – I said, ‘(Forget) you, you’re not going to shut us down.’ ”

A regular Patrick Henry.

Give me liberty or forget you.

After acting all proud of himself on that stage, Sutherland proceeded – according to the letter of reprimand – to dissemble and lie about it.

He initially said, in his first written statement, that the sergeant-at-arms was threatening toward him, and that he – Sutherland – had initially remained calm and professional, only to be drawn into a shouting match by the dastardly officer. He also said that the sergeant-at-arms had rushed at him, and he was afraid that he was about to be thrown to the ground and arrested.

“However, your claims are not corroborated by the security video of his approach, photos of your short conversation, or the statement from other witnesses on site,” the letter said.

The letter noted that Sutherland – over the course of a written statement, a revised written statement, an interview with investigators, an interview with a reporter and his statements at the rally – continually revised his version of events.

He lied, in other words.

There will always be people who mistake a selfish temper for righteousness. The fact that the pandemic fueled this to such a degree, among some you would hope would know better, has been supremely disappointing, but it probably should not have been surprising.

And we surely won’t have to wait long for Sutherland and his ilk to discover some new “tyranny” over which they can feel good about throwing fits – something else to justify hollering at people doing their job.

But the leaders of public institutions, and the leaders of his own party, have to call it out in no uncertain terms.

Just as they did here.

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