The Majority Coalition Caucus is implementing at least three attempts at remedies for the strife between the two senators.
• The two will have their seats moved in caucus so they will not be seated near one another.
• After the end of the 2013 special session, the two will no longer share a staff person for public information.
• As Rivers is the caucus whip, Benton will use an intermediary to communicate with her on matters such as attendance.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said Thursday afternoon he has filed a complaint against Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, over two incidents this year where Rivers directed expletives at him.
Benton says Rivers shouted at him on April 19 on the floor of the Senate in what he calls “an uncontrollable tirade” and again during a June caucus meeting.
Rivers said she hasn’t seen the complaint, but when contacted by The Columbian offered this response:
“I will stand my ground against anyone who attempts to bully, intimidate or threaten me.”
Rivers confirmed she clashed with Benton on the two occasions. She said she intends to release today her documentation of the incidents, which she had filed with the Secretary of the Senate’s office. The secretary wasn’t in the office Thursday afternoon, so the documents weren’t available.
Benton made several documents regarding the matter available Thursday afternoon, including a written complaint from April 22 in which he describes the first incident as “unacceptable in any venue, especially on the floor of the Senate.”
“At one point during her uncontrollable tirade, I was actually afraid that she may even physically strike me,” Benton wrote to Hunter Goodman, secretary of the Senate. “It was a very uncomfortable feeling. I have been on the receiving end of many heated comments over the years, but I have never before felt the threat of physical violence.”
The reason for the incident, Benton said, seemed to stem from a disagreement on how to proceed with amendments regarding the Columbia River Crossing project. Both senators oppose the CRC as currently proposed. But they felt there were different avenues worth pursuing to put a halt to funding it.
Benton said he later paused on his complaint, hoping Rivers would resolve the issue with an apology. But Benton said Rivers shouted at him again in a June caucus meeting over a discussion on press relations.
Benton said he then agreed to a private meeting with Republican leaders, where Rivers told him she was considering filing her own harassment complaint if he didn’t agree to back off.
“The very next day I get a letter from Republican leadership stating that there was basically a mutual problem and please (put a stop to it),” Benton said by phone on Thursday.
Benton says the threat of a harassment complaint, coupled with the letter from the Majority Coalition Caucus, is akin to an effort to “cover up based on politics.”
Benton said the totality of the incidents prompted him to move forward with the official complaint.
“This is about the honor and respect of the institution,” Benton said. “I think this will help the institution. That’s the motivation here.”
Apology for language
Included in the documents that Benton released is an email from Rivers where she apologizes to Benton and caucus members for her choice of words.
“Don — I apologize for using profanity to express my feeling about you,” Rivers writes. “You were correct when you pointed out, rightfully, that it was unprofessional. To my fellow caucus members, I am sorry to have put you in the uncomfortable position of witnessing the exchange.”
Rivers said Thursday the apology “stands for itself” and that she is also sorry for her language on the floor of the Senate.
“I shouldn’t have used a swear word to describe how I feel about Don,” Rivers said.
When asked if she is still considering filing a harassment claim against Benton, she said it seems unlikely.
“I’m just not the type to splatter my colleagues with this type of ugliness,” Rivers said. “I would rather search for a solution that is in everyone’s best interest.”
The documents surrounding the issue are not public records. Benton elected to make the documents public as per his prerogative as an elected official. Rivers said she intends to ask the secretary of the Senate to release the remainder of the documents in response to Benton.
Deputy Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson said he could not comment on any queries regarding legislative complaints.
“Anything like this would be filed with the minority and majority leaders, and it would go from there,” Hendrickson said. “I can’t confirm if we have (a complaint) even.”
Hendrickson did refer to the “Respectful Workplace Policy” for guidance. That document states the Senate will compose an investigative committee to look into the matter.
Benton is citing both that policy and Rule 7 of the Senate Rules as grounds for his complaint. The first line of Rule 7 states: “indecorous conduct, boisterous or unbecoming language will not be permitted in the Senate at any time.”
Still, it is unclear what type of punishment, if any, could be levied for cursing on the Senate floor. The Senate’s workplace policy does state senators could be subject to “reprimand, censure, or expulsion.”
Both senators hold leadership positions. Benton, the majority coalition’s deputy leader, has served in the Senate since 1996. Rivers is the majority coalition’s whip. This is Rivers’ first legislative session as a senator; she served in the House of Representatives from 2010-2012.