Rivers explains her side in fuss with Benton

Senators' exchanges of unfriendly words lead to new caucus rules

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor



Rivers' account of Senate floor exchange with Benton

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Previously on this story

Sen. Benton files complaint against colleague.

Legislative remedies

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.

State Sen. Don Benton allegedly refused to leave Sen. Ann Rivers alone, and called her "weird" multiple times before she cursed at him during an altercation on the Senate floor in April, according to Rivers' account of the exchange.

Rivers, R-La Center, released documentation Friday detailing the encounter with Benton, who has since filed a formal complaint against Rivers for using abusive language toward him. Benton, R-Vancouver, said in the complaint that Rivers' actions demeaned and embarrassed him, and made him feel physically threatened.

According to Rivers' account, Benton approached her April 19 on the floor of the Senate to ask her for more details about an effort affecting the Columbia River Crossing project. Both senators have opposed the transportation project as planned.

Rivers declined to discuss specifics, but Benton pressed her for more information. It was at that time that Rivers confronted Benton for allegedly spreading misinformation about her stance on the CRC to Clark County residents.

Rivers said she told Benton: "I know who you are, I know what you do, I want no part of you or a relationship with you. I will work with you in a professional manner but beyond that I want nothing to do with you."

Next, Rivers wrote in her documentation of the incident, "Don started laughing and I walked away to my floor seat where Don, a few moments later, followed me.

"I asked him to stay away from me and he said that he thought he should be able to address me," Rivers continued. "Again, I asked him to leave which he refused to do. Sen. Sharon Brown approached and asked Don for a discussion, which he refused. Sharon left and Don looked at me and repeated multiple times 'You are weird.' I told him I thought he was a piece of shit."

Because Benton made details of the altercation public, Rivers said Thursday that she would release the document that detailed her side of the story. Benton organized a conference call with reporters from The Columbian and The Seattle Times on Thursday to announce the complaint he filed against Rivers over two separate occasions in which, he said, Rivers went on "unprofessional and angry tirades."

After their argument on the Senate floor in April, the two clashed again in June while their caucus was discussing press relations. Rivers did not document that altercation, but she did email an apology afterward to Benton and other members of her caucus.

In her email, Rivers wrote: "Don -- I apologize for using profanity to express my feelings about you. … To my fellow caucus members, I am sorry to have put you in the uncomfortable position of witnessing the exchange."

After Rivers emailed the apology, Benton wrote back that her apology was "hollow" and he advised her to "please get some professional help."

Benton said by email Friday evening that there is "nothing Sen. Rivers can say (that) could justify her profane and uncontrollable behavior demonstrated in the Senate chamber in front of guests and 15-year-old pages.

"This incident is not about me personally," he continued. "I have a responsibility as deputy majority leader to maintain a respectful workplace for all senators and all Senate employees and guests."

Benton was elected to the Senate in 1996. Rivers, who was elected to the Senate last fall, serves as the majority whip. Since the two butted heads, the Senate's majority caucus has set some ground rules for them. They will be seated away from each other during caucus meetings, they will no longer share a press relations officer, and they will use an intermediary when it is absolutely necessary that they communicate.

"If I had a magic wand," Rivers said by phone Friday, "I would make it all disappear. It was never my hope or desire that any of this would see the newspaper."

The third Senate member from Clark County, Democrat Annette Cleveland, said Friday that she was "saddened" by the conflict between the two senators. Cleveland said that there are plenty of disagreements among legislators, but they try to "keep those disagreements respectful."

Cleveland described herself as having a good relationship with Rivers.

"Sen. Rivers and I have worked on a number of different issues we feel are important to the region," Cleveland said. "We've had some very positive interactions."

Cleveland also said she respects Benton for standing up for what he believes is right, "but he can be very … forceful, I guess is the word I'm looking for."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.