Meet state Sen. Don Benton: born-again champion of the respectful workplace.
Benton, a Vancouver Republican, provided a much-needed distraction from the dysfunction of the Legislature last week by releasing documents exposing the dysfunction of the Senate’s majority caucus. In a series of letters to the top Senate administrator, Benton alleged that he was the victim of two profanity-laced attacks by fellow Republican Sen. Ann Rivers, La Center. One was a private exchange at Rivers’ desk on the Senate floor on April 19; the other was during a closed-door caucus meeting June 3 that Benton described as “almost identical” to the first incident.
“Her loud and disgusting use of expletives directed at me on the floor of the Senate on Friday morning not only violates our respectful workplace policy, but insults the decorum of the Senate,” Benton wrote in a formal complaint April 22. “… I was actually afraid that she may even physically strike me. It was a very uncomfortable feeling.” Rivers’ behavior “interfered in my ability to do my job, demeaned me, embarrassed me and others and made me feel physically threatened.”
A subsequent letter said he was pursuing the complaint because, “my only goal is to protect the institution and Senate employees from Senator Rivers'” behavior.
And there the ironies begin because Benton is hardly a shrinking violet. Nor has he always been as concerned for Senate employees complaining of hostile workplaces.
Benton is chairman of the facilities and operations committee, a post he got as part of the deal that created the majority coalition caucus of 23 Republicans and two Democrats. One of his first acts was to lift all Senate sanctions against another senator, Pam Roach of Auburn. Roach had been found to have violated the Senate’s respectful workplace policies for an angry attack on a senate staff member in the Republican caucus room in 2009.
Among the findings of an outside lawyer who interviewed staff and senators was that Roach screamed at and threatened a senior staff member. A witness to the confrontation said, “He was standing. She was pointing at him. It was very ugly. I had a horrible stomach ache. I just wanted to throw up.”
Said another: “What sticks in my mind is not the words, it is the atmosphere. It’s difficult to describe. It’s venom, the feeling that comes when she walks into the room. Like she smells blood.”
Partly because it was so abusive and partly because it was the latest in a string of similarly bizarre episodes, the F&O committee reprimanded Roach, warned her against retaliating against the staff member, barred her from direct contact with staff members, and directed her to get counseling for her anger problems. The Senate Republicans banned her from the caucus where the staff member worked.
Only one member of the bipartisan F&O committee refused to go along with the earlier findings: Don Benton. And it was Benton who was the No. 1 apologist for Roach during the investigation.
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” he told the investigator. “The Senate is a pressure cooker for high blood pressure, short fuses and hot tempers, especially because we work 18-20 hours a day at the end of the session. Tempers cannot help but flare. It’s almost by definition a hostile workplace.”
For her part, Rivers says she cursed at Benton in April only after she told him she didn’t trust him, after he refused to leave her alone, after he pursued her back to her desk on the floor, after he repeatedly told her, “You are weird.” She told The Columbian that “I will stand my ground against anyone who attempts to bully, intimidate or threaten me.”
So Don Benton demands immediate action against a fellow senator who cursed at him while excusing Roach’s more-egregious behavior. He says Rivers should get counseling but lifted demands that Roach do so. He says he’s making this an issue to protect Senate staff but did little to protect the victims of Roach’s anger.
And he wonders why no one is taking him seriously?