Three and a half years ago, a young female employee at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources was repeatedly sexually harassed by Republican state lands commissioner Doug Sutherland, documents show. According to the woman and multiple eyewitnesses, Sutherland ran his hands over the young woman's back and waist. Then, turning her around, he said "something about 'just looking,'" according to the woman's notes. When she complained to her supervisor, the notes continue, he told her Sutherland was "just being a regular guy" and suggested she button her shirt.
Those notes, part of a 62-page document obtained by David Goldstein of the liberal website HorsesAss.org, were compiled as part of a sexual-harassment complaint against Sutherland—a complaint that ultimately resulted in a formal apology from Sutherland, sexual harassment training throughout the department, and the woman's resignation.
It's a blockbuster story—one you'd think Seattle's daily papers would have jumped on as soon as they got wind of it. As it turns out, though, the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer—along with the Tacoma News Tribune and the Olympian—had been sitting on the documents for nearly four months. The source who gave the papers the information eventually got fed up, and went to Goldstein.
Chris Grygiel, the political assignments editor for the P-I, explained his decision to pass on the story: "Sutherland and the woman had different accounts of what happened... According to the documents, Sutherland met with the woman at her request and followed through on other antiharassment protocols she had suggested... No disciplinary action was taken and there was no payment of state funds in any settlement. We decided to pass on the story. People can certainly second-guess our decision, but that was the reasoning at the time."
It's not exactly surprising that Sutherland and the woman had "different accounts" of the harassment—anyone charged with sexual harassment, legitimately or otherwise, is going to have a different story than the purported victim. What's relevant here is that several of the woman's colleagues backed up her description of what happened—a fact that takes the story out of the realm of "he said/she said."
Of the two Seattle dailies, only the Seattle Times decided, belatedly, that the sexual harassment complaint against Sutherland merited coverage. Their take? Well, at least he apologized.
The story—headlined "Washington Public-Lands Commissioner Apologized After Complaint by Employee"—began, "Washington's public-lands commissioner, Doug Sutherland, inappropriately touched and made remarks to a young female employee who soon quit... despite his formal apology." The story cited exactly two sources (not counting a two-word quote from Sutherland's opponent, Peter Goldmark): Sutherland... and Sutherland's campaign manager.
For the record, here's how Sutherland's own aide recalled the incident at the time (notes appear to be from an oral interview): "[Sutherland] shook Jesse's hand, then got to [the woman], instead of shaking hand he turned her slightly and ran his hand all over back. I was uncomfortable, and made joke: 'And she's quite strong too.' Doug turned her to front: 'And she has some other great parts also.'"
On Thursday, July 17, Sutherland issued a statement that essentially blamed Goldmark for allowing the story to come to light. "Doug's opponent, his supporters, and a liberal blog sent the information out without speaking with the woman or expressing concern that this might put her in a position she did not ask to be in—using a private matter as a political weapon in a campaign," the statement said. "The contrast between Doug's efforts to address the mistake he made by being too informal and apologize and the unauthorized use of a personal matter by Doug's opponent without considering the position it put the woman in, says a lot about why so many have expressed their support for Doug prior to this story and why so many have called to reiterate that support today." "Informal," huh? Well, that's one word for it.
Also on Thursday, the Seattle Times swapped out an Associated Press story for the original Sutherland piece, and changed the headline. The old headline: "Washington Public-Lands Commissioner Apologized After Complaint by Employee." The new one: "WA Official Was Subject of Harassment Complaint."