If a statewide elected official were to humiliate a young female employee in front of her coworkers and supervisors by inappropriately touching her—twice—while lewdly remarking on her breasts, and ultimately leading to her resignation… you’d think that might generate a few headlines from a local press corps proven oh so sensitive on matters of perceived personal offense. But apparently, not if that elected official is a likable, grandfatherly type, like Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland.
The incident dates back almost three and a half years, and while hushed whispers have been making the rounds for nearly as long, it was not until March of 2008 that the allegation was substantiated through a public records request that produced a 62-page document detailing a number of eyewitness accounts. (The name of the victim is redacted throughout.) Yet even with this document in hand, multiple news organizations have declined to inform voters of an undisputed incident that portrays a shocking lapse of judgment on the part of Commissioner Sutherland, a management style disruptive to the operations of his agency, and a clear violation of his department’s anti-harassment policies, if not the law itself.
On January 15, 2005, a young, female employee, recently hired by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was introduced to Commissioner Sutherland at a state meeting in Pacific, WA. Following is a description of the initial encounter, as transcribed from the woman’s handwritten notes:
Jon introduces me to the commissioner. “Doug, this is [REDACTED], the new public use forester.”
I shake his hand. [REDACTED] great to meet you.”
We resume to positions in tight circle.
Commissioner reaches across circle (& Doug M.) w/ his hand & grabs my left shoulder. Feels it, then twists me around so that my back is facing him & he holds me w/ one hand & feels my back (open palmed) from my neck down to my waist, shoulders, etc. Says something about “just looking.”
I am incredulous & half-smiling w/lack of reaction & blush v. red.
Doug Mc. (I made eye contact wi/ him @ some point during the inappropriate touching) & he made a comment like “We hire them strong.” or “Strong back.”
When commissioner returned to his position in the circle he said “Could have felt… up front” or “could have felt the other side”
“Wouldn’t be right.”
No, it wouldn’t have been right for the then 68-year-old Sutherland to feel this young woman’s breasts, but then, in the unanimous opinion of those who witnessed his actions, it clearly wasn’t right for him to rub her neck, shoulder, back and waist either. And for those who might question the recall of a young woman who at times appears teetering on the edge of shock, her contemporaneous notes are not only corroborated by various eyewitnesses, but at times elaborated on in ways that make Sutherland’s behavior appear all the more more inexcusable.
For example, the “Doug M.” in the transcript above is Doug McClelland, a division head at DNR, and a longtime aide to Sutherland. In a January 18 memo, McClelland provides a similar description of that first encounter:
Doug said hi to all and when I got to introducing [REDACTED] he put his arm around her and rubbed the back of her jacket a few times. I said she is strong because it seemed uncomfortable in what he was doing. Doug said something like: “she has other nice parts too!” All heard it and [REDACTED] was obviously embarrassed.
McClelland provides additional details in handwritten notes that appear to have been taken during an oral interview:
Shook Jesse’s hand, then got to [REDACTED], instead of shaking hand he turned her slightly and ran his hand all over back.
I was uncomfortable, & made joke: “And she’s quite strong too.”
Doug turned her to front: “And she has some other great parts also.”
[REDACTED] was very embarrassed. Taken aback.
Sure, McClelland’s two accounts differ slightly, and “could have felt the other side” and “she has other nice parts too” are two entirely different phrases, but regardless of the discrepancies both he and the victim describe the same basic event: Sutherland grabbed the young woman, turned her around, rubbed her back, and then made a suggestive comment about her breasts. And McClelland’s added description of Sutherland turning the young woman first to the back, and then to the front, not only clarifies that McClelland understood the offending remark to be a reference to the woman’s breasts, it also presents a clear visual image of Sutherland physically manipulating the victim as if she were an object. And a sexual object at that.
Multiple accounts have Sutherland cordially shaking hands with everyone in the circle, while the victim was “singled out” according to McClelland, because she was a “bright, smiling female,” and the only woman in the small group. Indeed, even Sutherland confirms the victim’s account, writing in a postmortem Q&A:
“The incident, as [REDACTED] describes it, is essentially what happened. The disconnect is in how she felt and what my intent was.”
But if there was a “disconnect” it was purely Sutherland’s, as all the witnesses appeared uniformly shocked and appalled at the Commissioner’s inappropriate behavior. In his January 18 memo, McClelland describes a brief conversation with Jon Byerly, the young woman’s immediate supervisor:
At the next break I had a chance to let Jon know that his employee [REDACTED] was uncomfortable from her encounter with Doug S. and Jon said “I thought his actions were very unprofessional and couldn’t believe he had acted that way.” I agreed with Jon’s observation.
Later that evening, Byerly called the woman at home to express his shock and support. From her handwritten notes:
Very upset following my departure. Spoke to my friend(s) & family for support.
Jon called @ 7:15 pm.
He says that he is shocked by what occurred.
References strict standards that we must abide by when it comes to harassment, but that the commissioner answers to the public.
He says that he’s embarrassed.
And again from the victim’s notes (and later corroborated by McClelland), even Sutherland acknowledged at the time that his actions had caused the young woman distress:
When the commissioner resumed his “position” in the circle he looked at me & said “Oh look, I’ve embarrassed her.”
Embarrassed her, yes. And much, much more than that, for as the documents show, this incident (and those that followed) caused the young woman such distress, that it eventually led to her resignation a few weeks later… a cause and effect that once again, even Sutherland ultimately acknowledges:
“I’m sure this incident contributed to her feelings about leaving and I’m really sorry for that.”
At this point I imagine that there are some who might seek to dismiss Sutherland’s actions as little more than an overly-friendly massage and an off-color remark, and the victim’s resignation as an unfortunate overreaction. (Is that why our male dominated press corps seems so uninterested?) But I urge you to try to put yourselves in the shoes of a young woman in a new job, forced to endure a very public humiliation at the wandering hands of a man, 45 years her senior, who is not only her boss’s boss, but a prominent, statewide elected official. DNR has and enforces anti-harassment policies specifically designed to prevent incidents like this and the hostile work environment it obviously created.
I also urge you to consider that while the facts in this case are clearly established, a typed transcript alone cannot possibly convey the full emotional impact of the events therein. For example, while the young woman clearly notes the waves of anger washing over her just minutes after the incident, her clipped phrasing contains little of the emotion she attempts to describe.
Doug Mc. said “He oftentimes says the wrong thing.”
I said “That was not okay. That was not right.”
[…] I was very upset as I replayed the moment; (the commissioner’s action, & comment) in my head — w/ anger coming in waves. Realizing that what had just occurred was NOT right.
At one point wiped away tears.
Closed my eyes. Talked myself out of becoming more upset.
The added emphasis in her handwritten notes is much more revealing, but even that doesn’t do justice to the pain and confusion that ultimately led to her resignation just a few weeks later.
And compounding the injury was the insensitive manner in which the woman’s supervisor, Jon Byerly attempted to excuse Sutherland’s actions just minutes after the encounter. Indeed, the following transcript could be used in sexual harassment training sessions everywhere as a textbook example of exactly how not to deal with a sexual harassment complaint.
Jon came to “sit down next to his little lady.” He sat one seat away to my left. Chris M. still sitting to my right.
Before Jon said anything else he motioned to his shirt at the top of the neck.
I did not know what he was referencing & asked “What?”
He made the motion again & I said “My button?” and he said “Your button.”
I was shocked. Again blushed as I buttoned up the top button (not the neck snap) on my uniform. I was wearing my uniform shirt, loose gray slacks, tank beneath my uniform & a fleece long-sleeve zip up over top, along w/ a skarf around my neck. My shirt was not low & did not show excessive decolletage. I had buttened my shirt up to the same button for the previous 8 days of work & did not in an way feel as if my dress was inappropriate.
Jon then leaned over close & said “I want you to know that I noticed (that action/comment?) that occurred.”
I was taken aback about the shirt button & did not respond except to say “That was not right.”
Jon proceeded to lean very close in once again & tell me that the commissioner has a reputation of just being a regular guy & that he does not think before he speaks.”
I looked at Jon & said “There is no excuse.”
Jon said “I’m not trying to make an excuse for him”
I said “That was very inappropriate & very, very, bad.”
I began to get visibly upset but no tears but conveyed the seriousness of the situation.
Jon Stood up & said “We need to eat or we will insult them.”
Oh Jesus. I’m guessing had Byerly first consulted Human Resources before attempting to calm the woman, blame the victim would not have been their preferred response. And according to the notes from McClelland’s oral interview, he too felt Byerly’s incredibly ham-fisted and insensitive counseling was totally inappropriate.
Jon came up and told me he had spoke to [REDACTED] and used it as a teachable moment to button her shirt up.
[I] told him that wasn’t appropriate.
In [my] opinion, she was dressed professionally.
Five days later, the victim was “temporarily assigned” a new supervisor.
Imagine you are a young woman, excited to embark on your chosen career, only days on the job at DNR. Imagine you are surrounded by peers and supervisors at your first statewide meeting, about to be introduced to the Commissioner of Public Lands, a statewide elected official. And now imagine the 68-year-old Sutherland spins you around, fondles you, and dismisses you with a sexually suggestive comment… only to have your immediate supervisor imply that you somehow brought the harassment upon yourself. How could your day get any worse?
Jesse & I were standing near our “lunch seats” when the commissioner returned to that area, placed his right hand on the right side of my lower waist & ran his hand across my waist (would have been just above my belt) to the left side of my waist.
Oh. My. God.
He (Commissioner) asked if I would be working out of the Olympia office or the regional office. I told him that I would be focused in Elbe Hills, trying to get that off the ground.
I do not believe Jesse knew of this inappropriate touching.
I held onto my water bottle tightly in front of me & did not reach out to shake his hand.
The commissioner then said that he would like to come to Elbe to see our work & what we’ve been up to.
Doug McClelland flew across the room & began shaking the commissioner’s hand.
Flew across the room? Yeah, I bet he did.
Could Sutherland have been more clueless? Or was he really clueless at all? He’d already acknowledged that he’d “embarrassed her” with his first round of inappropriate touching; could he possibly have expected a second round would be any more welcome?
Jesse said “I notice things.” “And I notice you do too.”
Chris joined our stance but not our conversation somewhere in here.
I said something to the effect of “If you’re referencing what just happened that was not okay.”
I said “You can’t do that.” “It is 2005!” “You can’t touch my waist like that.”
Jesse said “He just touched your waist?”
I said “Yes.” Seething.
Jesse said “Hold on [REDACTED] we’ll talk about this later.” “Slow down.”
I was irate, esp. that it had occurred again.
Did she really misunderstand Sutherland’s intentions, as he contends, or were his intentions absolutely clear from the start? (Ironically, if Sutherland had any questions about what does or does not constitute sexual harassment, he could have always consulted his own daughter Karen, an employment and labor attorney who specializes in, you guessed it… sexual harassment suits.)
This was no minor incident, the victim’s complaint throwing DNR into a frenzy of damage control. Meetings were held, testimony taken, statements given, memos written, supervisors reassigned, counseling given, and reminders on appropriate workplace behavior sent department wide. According to notes from a January 24 meeting, it was determined that the incident was a violation of DNR policy, that disciplinary action was warranted, and that it was in fact sexual harassment… but that due to the fact that it was “isolated,” “not hostile,” and involved no “quid pro quo,” it did not rise to the level of “illegal” sexual harassment.
Well, maybe. I discussed the case with a former county prosecutor who insisted that had their executive been involved in an incident like this, they would have settled in a heartbeat rather than risk going to trial. Whatever. The victim never filed suit, so we’ll never know.
What we do know is that the shockingly inappropriate behavior of Commissioner Sutherland led directly to the resignation of a young female employee, and the disruption and distraction of a number of managers who otherwise might have carried out the actual business of DNR… you know, trivial things like preventing timber companies from clearcutting unstable slopes.
We also know that while Sutherland ultimately apologized to his victim, he was never subjected to the sort of disciplinary action a lower level manager would surely have faced for similar misconduct. What kind of discipline might Sutherland have expected had he not been the Commissioner himself?
Well, as it so happens a public record exists of a contemporaneous incident involving a DNR manager and a female subordinate:
On February 7, 2005, Appellant sent [COMPLAINANT] a joke to her work e-mail. The joke was a fake advertisement for a pill called “Fukitol,” which in part stated, “When life just blows … Fukitol!” The subject line of the e-mail read, “I think I already overdosed.” At the time, [COMPLAINANT] was undergoing therapy to alleviate stress she was experiencing at work, and she perceived the joke as an attempt by Appellant to make fun of her stress and communicate to her that that he could get away with whatever he wanted. The [COMPLAINANT] also found the joke “menacing,” and she forwarded a copy of the e-mail to Ms. Dzimble.
Although DNR ultimately concluded that the manager had not intended to create a hostile work environment, that was the result of his actions nonetheless, and disciplined him by temporarily reducing his salary two steps for a period of two months. The manager challenged the penalty, but the Washington Personnel Appeals Board rejected his appeal, concluding amongst other things:
… the issue here is not Appellant’s intent was when he sent [COMPLAINANT] the e-mail, but what impact the e-mail had on [COMPLAINANT] when she received it…
… Appellant’s conduct violated Respondent’s Harassment Prevention policy by creating an offensive and intimidating work environment…
… As a supervisor, Appellant is held to a higher standard of professionalism, accountability and judgment.
A higher standard, apparently, than the Commissioner himself.
If this was the penalty for emailing an offensive joke, just imagine the disciplinary action had this DNR manager inappropriately touched his subordinate while making a sexually suggestive comment. Well, you’ll have to imagine it, as Sutherland was subjected to no disciplinary action at all for just such an offense.
Then again, we wouldn’t expect the department he runs to be able to discipline Sutherland. No, as the victim’s supervisor Jon Byerly appropriately put it: “The Commissioner answers to the public.“ But you know, only if the public learns about the incident.
Which brings us back to my lede, and my utter surprise at the incomprehensible decision of multiple news organizations to refuse to run with what is clearly a compelling and relevant story. With all the petty reporting on ads and polls and fundraising that has dominated political coverage of late, why would a reporter or editor sit on such an explosive story for over four months?
Is it just another one of those ethically challenged “he said/she said” stories? No, it’s a “he said, he said, he said, she said story…” and they all said the same damn thing!
Could Sutherland’s actions reasonably be interpreted as professional, appropriate or excusable? The victim didn’t think so. Nor did her supervisor. Nor his. These aren’t mere allegations; HR made a determination of sexual harassment based on undisputed facts.
Is sexual harassment itself an illegitimate subject to be raised in a contest for Commissioner of Public Lands? The press had no qualms about reporting on sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Mike Lowry and Sen. Brock Adams… allegations that generated hundreds of headlines and ultimately drove both men from office. More recently, I didn’t see the news media holding back their coverage of state Rep. Jim Dunn, who was stripped of his committee assignments after making a single “inappropriate” remark to a woman at a legislative function.
“We want to have zero tolerance for our members for inappropriate comments,” said House Republican leader Richard DeBolt.
So we have zero tolerance for the indiscretions of a two-bit, part-time legislator, but the inappropriate behavior of a likable, grandfatherly, statewide elected official we just hush up?
Or are our media gatekeepers concerned that the story is somehow tainted because it was being shopped around by individuals who would like to see Sutherland defeated? (For the record, I received my copy of the documents from the same source the other news organizations received theirs.) No doubt the person who requested these public records is at least as partisan as I am… but that doesn’t make the facts of this story any less true.
Whatever his intent, Doug Sutherland sexually harassed a young female employee, creating a work environment so hostile that she quit a few weeks later. That is a fact. And it is a fact that voters have the right to know.