Callaghan: Senator’s banishment lasted until GOP needed her vote

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Just because state senators are elected doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. So when Sen. Pam Roach repeatedly abused and harassed staff members, she was sanctioned.

Based on an independent investigation that found a level of abuse that would shock even the most jaded, her own Republican caucus banned her from attending its closed-door meetings. The entire Senate reprimanded Roach in 2010 and imposed a set of sanctions to protect staff from intimidation and retaliation.

For an indefinite period of time, Roach could not have direct contact with Senate Republican Caucus staff; could speak to nonpartisan staff of committees she serves on but questions and requests to other committee staffers had to go through the Senate’s committee staff director; and could not speak to the Senate’s attorneys.

It was the Senate’s intent that lifting these sanctions is “to be contingent upon the completion of a plan for counseling or training that is submitted by Senator Roach … .” No such plan has been submitted; no such plan has been completed. In fact, Roach has remained unrepentant, sticking with her theory that she is the victim of a long-running conspiracy against her led by Republican leadership and top staffers. But we now find there was another way for Roach to escape at least some of the sanctions, one not detailed in her letter of reprimand. All she had to do was be the 25th vote needed for Republicans to take control of the Senate.

That’s what happened March 2 when three rogue Democrats sided with minority Republicans on a budget plan. But those three would not have been enough unless the Senate GOP could be sure Roach would vote with her party. So they cut a deal.

Roach would be allowed back in the caucus and therefore would have access to caucus staffers, including the man at the center of her 2010 reprimand -- attorney Mike Hoover. And based on the wording of two letters signed by the four top leaders of the Senate GOP, she was led to believe all access to staff was re-established.

The first letter dated Feb. 29 welcomed her back to the caucus but included a sentence that said staff sanctions were still in place. Then, two days later, a second letter simply said, “The Senate Republican Caucus has voted to remove all caucus sanctions against Senator Roach.” The term “caucus sanctions” might have been a deft choice of words to cover only her banishment from the caucus room. But Roach took it to mean much more. “When it got down to it, there were some things I was asking of my caucus,” she told The Seattle Times last month. “… (One) of them was the full restoration of going back into the caucus and access to staff. And that occurred.”

But the Republican leadership does not have the authority to lift the staff-contact sanctions. Only the bipartisan administrative committee that imposed them can do that, and it has not.

That Facilities and Operations Committee did meet last week and decided to hire outside lawyers to respond to a threatened lawsuit by Hoover. The members did not vote to take action against what appear to be Roach’s violations of the 2010 reprimand. Maybe that will come, unless of course Democrats need Roach’s vote themselves before the session ends.

No wonder Hoover feels as if he has been tossed to the wolves. No wonder he had what might have been a stress reaction that led to hospitalization the day he heard about the deal. No wonder he and others concluded that protecting staff from the type of harassment, verbal abuse and retaliation he suffered at Roach’s hands is good only until someone needs a vote to increase their own power.

That’s why Hoover’s threatened lawsuit is so explosive -- and potentially lucrative. It wasn’t prepared because the Senate created a hostile workplace. It’s explosive because the Senate knowingly RE-created one for cynical reasons that likely won’t be easy to explain to a jury. Given that, the requested amount of $1.75 million might not be enough.