It took four months, and a little prodding, but the Seattle Times has finally published a story on the Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland’s well documented sexual harassment of a young DNR employee:
Washington’s public-lands commissioner, Doug Sutherland, inappropriately touched and made remarks to a young female employee who soon quit the Department of Natural Resources despite his formal apology, according to public documents on the incident from his own department.
During a workplace meeting in 2005, Sutherland touched the woman’s back and waist and made suggestive comments that made her uncomfortable, according to written accounts from the woman and a witness.
After an internal investigation, Sutherland met with the woman at her request and apologized to her. He agreed that he had violated departmental policy on appropriate behavior, according to the documents.
There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Yeah sure, the headline emphasizes the apology over the offense (because that’s the most compelling part of the story, right?) and the reporter doesn’t seem to care much for sizzle, but even given the fairest shake possible, Sutherland still doesn’t come off looking too good. Given the front page placement and the factual, if dry lede, I’d say I’m pretty satisfied with coverage.
A couple of comments though…
But details about the incident are emerging at a sensitive time for Sutherland, 71, a Republican and former Pierce County executive who is running for a third term overseeing more than 5 million acres of state lands and logging on private timberlands.
True, but perhaps the timing wouldn’t have been quite so sensitive if the Times and other news organizations had run this story months ago when they first got ahold of the documents?
The Seattle Times in late February received the documents detailing the allegations from critics of Sutherland who back his Democratic opponent, Peter Goldmark.
And your point is? What, you expect Sutherand’s supporters to dig up dirt on their candidate? But I guess that’s the type of observation we should expect when the Times assigns a political scandal to their environmental reporter.
The Times did not publish a story at the time. The details were first publicly reported online in a Seattle-based blog, horsesass.org, on Tuesday.
Sutherland has maintained that his contact with the woman was simply meant to be a friendly gesture. And, in an unpublished interview in April with a Seattle Times reporter, Sutherland specifically disputed that his remarks had been lewd.
“I have no recollection of saying anything like that,” he said. “Nor do I believe I would have.”
Really? And yet Sutherland told HR:
“The incident, as [REDACTED] describes it, is essentially what happened. The disconnect is in how she felt and what my intent was.”
I dunno, doesn’t seem like much of a dispute there to me. As for Sutherland’s assertion that he “simply meant [it] to be a friendly gesture,” well, it doesn’t really matter what Sutherland intended. Legally, harassment has little to do with the harasser’s intent, and everything to do with the victim’s perception. And the perception on the part of the victim and the witnesses seemed pretty damn bad.
But I don’t want to rely solely on my own judgment on this, so I forwarded my post to University of Washington Sociology professor Pepper Schwartz, a nationally renowned author and speaker on sexuality, work relationships and other issues, and I asked her if she could help me put this incident into some context.
“I do think this is an unnecessary and unfortunate experience,” Dr. Schwartz replied via email. “The person in question was treating this young woman as a piece of meat or an object rather than as a junior employee. It really is demeaning and inappropriate and even if it wasn’t meant to intimidate or embarrass the woman, it certainly would have that impact.”
Dr. Schwartz went on to address the broader issue of workplace harassment: “The more junior a person, the more her status and dignity are at risk; this was exactly the wrong approach. I don’t know if it fits the definition of sexual harassment, because as I understand the term it has to be a repeated act. But certainly it was loutish, humiliating and has no place in a work environment. It certainly could and did have a negative effect on her standing at the time and her feelings about being an employee in that place for the future.”
There’s simply no excusing Sutherland’s behavior, regardless of his excuses. This was rotten behavior, and rotten management. And voters need to ask themselves this November, whether he is the candidate best able to manage the hundreds of employees at DNR.