Report: Benton, Rivers both at fault for spats in the Legislature

Rivers alleges Benton vacationed in Hawaii during a crucial point in his 2012 re-election campaign

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Editor’s Note: This article contains quotations that include profanity.

State Sen. Don Benton shares blame for a series of unprofessional spats he had last year with Sen. Ann Rivers, administrative officials within the Washington Legislature have ruled.

After reviewing Benton’s respectful workplace complaint against Rivers, officials concluded that both Clark County Republicans violated Senate rules by using demeaning language toward each other. They also found that Benton’s disrespectful treatment of Rivers interfered with her work performance in the Legislature.

In mid-June, Benton, R-Vancouver, held a conference call with reporters, laying out two confrontations he had with Rivers, R-La Center. First, Benton said, Rivers cursed at him on the Senate floor April 19 in front of staff and gallery guests. Then, Benton said Rivers swore at him again on June 3 during a closed-door caucus meeting.

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Senate's ruling on complaints filed by Benton, Rivers

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“Her behavior, without question, interfered in my ability to do my job, demeaned me, embarrassed me and others and made me feel physically threatened,” Benton wrote in his complaint to the Senate’s Finance and Operations Committee, which investigates such complaints.

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Senate's ruling on appeal filed by Benton

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But a statement Rivers submitted to the legislators investigating the case tells a different story. The documents were released to members of the media Monday.

In her statement, made in July, Rivers alleged that Benton called her a “trashy trampy-mouthed little girl” during a personnel meeting with Senate leaders, and the Finance and Operations Committee independently confirmed that incident. She also said Benton was trying to destroy her reputation because she voted against him in his unsuccessful bid for Republican caucus chair.

“The use of the word ‘trampy’ is particularly troublesome,” Rivers wrote to the legislators on the Finance and Operations Committee. “This word has a connotation that borders on sexual harassment.”

In her statement to investigators, Rivers said she voted against Benton for caucus chair after learning he took a discreet trip to Hawaii in November 2012, a critical time in his tight Senate race against Democrat Tim Probst.

Although elections were over, campaign volunteers were chasing down any ballots that were pending because of signature problems. Many of those ballots could get counted if the voter contacted election officials to confirm the voter's identity. After a hand recount, Benton won by just 76 votes.

“Worse still,” Rivers wrote, “Don contacted me to ask me to coffee during his absence — giving me the impression that he was in Clark County when he was, indeed, completely unavailable to meet. He then texted me to cancel saying that he had gotten caught up in important campaign activities.”

When Benton confronted Rivers about the caucus chair vote, she said she brought up his sunny getaway and his tendency to “blow up emotionally when faced with adversity.” Benton then unleashed a “tongue lashing that included yelling, profanity, and character impugning comments such as ‘You are a (expletive) liar,’” Rivers wrote.

“In using profanity toward me during this time, I was given the impression by Don that this was a perfectly acceptable way of communicating with him,” she added.

In a written response to Rivers’ statement, Benton told the Finance and Operations Committee that Rivers’ account was “a pathetic attempt to portray herself as the victim.” He called Rivers’ statement a “set of false facts,” and he also wrote that Rivers was “behaving like a petulant child.”

A call seeking comment from Benton was not immediately returned on Monday. In response to the committee's report, Rivers said she will stand up to anyone who tries to bully, threaten or intimidate her.

‘Weird, Weird, Weird’

In Benton’s formal complaint, he stated that Rivers was “out of control” April 19 on the Senate floor, and that Benton “repeatedly asked her to calm down and lower her voice.”

However, the committee’s investigation concludes that on April 19 witnesses saw “Rivers (attempt) to separate herself from Senator Benton by asking him more than once to leave her alone, which he did not do.” In all, the committee confirmed three instances in which Benton “used unprofessional and highly disrespectful language intended to interfere with (Rivers’) work performance,” according to its report.

Additionally, the committee determined Rivers “used demeaning and derogatory language in violation of the Respectful Workplace Policy on the two occasions indicated by Senator Benton’s complaint.”

The committee said that although it doesn’t excuse her behavior, Rivers did try to separate herself from Benton on the Senate floor, and she apologized by email after cursing at Benton during the June 3 caucus meeting.

In her statement to the committee, Rivers said the April 19 Senate floor spat started when Benton began to badger her over her plan to investigate the Columbia River Crossing project, which they both oppose. Rivers declined to share details and then confronted Benton for spreading false information to her constituents about her stance on the CRC.

“Don started laughing in a creepy way and I walked away to my floor seat where Don, a few moments later, followed me,” Rivers wrote. She said Benton leaned over her desk, and she asked him to leave her alone. “Don looked at me and repeated multiple times ‘You are weird’ and … ‘Weird!’, ‘Weird, weird, weird.’ ‘Just so weird!’”

Rivers continued, “At that point, I told him I thought he was a piece of shit and I had to leave my work area to get away from him. … I have to conclude that he was trying to bait me into this reaction, which unfortunately he did.”

Benton, first elected to the Senate in 1996, is deputy leader of the body’s majority caucus, while Rivers, new to the Senate in 2012, serves as whip.

‘Take her down’

In her statement, Rivers also provided more details about events leading up to the Benton altercations investigated by the committee.

During an April 9 caucus leadership meeting, transportation co-chair Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he was working on a budget provision that would give state money to the CRC, but only if the U.S. Coast Guard approved crucial permitting for the project (the Coast Guard approved a CRC permit this fall).

“I looked at Don,” Rivers wrote, “and said something along the lines of, ‘My sources at the Coast Guard do not see how they can permit this project so this could buy us some time.’ … I had not seen (the provision) up until that point.”

After the meeting, Rivers said Benton had a heated exchange with King, then turned his focus to her.

“He was incensed that he had not been included in the discussions about the proviso,” Rivers wrote. “He kept moving into my personal space and leaning into my face; spittle from his verbal attack landed on my face. He said that I was lying about not having seen the proviso and then said ‘You are (expletive) all over me! You are (expletive) all over your constituents!’ ”

The next morning, Rivers said, “my aide reported that our phone was flooded with calls from angry people claiming that we were ‘selling them out’ and ‘in bed with the CRC.’ These were the very things Don had been saying to me the day before.”

Rivers said she believes Benton spread the rumor to leaders in the Clark County Republican Party, and that he asked bloggers to write about her in a negative light. On April 16, a group of constituents visiting Olympia came into Rivers’ office asking her to “hold firm” on her opposition to the CRC, and that they heard she was considering a compromise that could move the project forward.

“It felt as if Don was inciting harassment,” Rivers wrote, adding that her opposition to the CRC had not wavered.

After Rivers clashed with Benton on April 19 on the Senate floor, she got a phone call from a friend who had just spoke with Benton. The friend warned Rivers that Benton said he would “take her down” and “destroy her.”

Later, Rivers said, the secretary of the Senate, Hunter Goodman, called a meeting to tell Rivers that Benton was demanding an apology for swearing at him on the Senate floor. Rivers refused and said she was considering filing a harassment complaint against Benton, but she hoped the problem would just die down.

Finance and Operations Committee records show Benton contacted Goodman five times, asking that he reprimand Rivers for her behavior. After learning Goodman did not rule on such matters, Benton forwarded his complaint to Senate majority and minority leaders.

Benton wasn’t pleased with the way Senate leaders responded, however.

Retaliation unfounded

On June 25, Benton alleged that majority caucus leaders Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, retaliated against him for filing the respectful workplace complaint. Benton said majority caucus leaders retaliated against him when they moved his caucus-room seat away from Rivers, and when they sent a letter reprimanding both Benton and Rivers, suggesting “that we both shared responsibility for Senator Rivers’ tirades.”

An investigation by legislators on the Finance and Operations Committee ruled that Benton’s allegations of retaliation were unfounded.

According to the report, “Senator Benton’s complaint that members of the caucus leadership retaliated against Senator Benton is without merit and should be dismissed.” The report was signed on Nov. 9 by Sens. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and Karen Fraser, D-Olympia. It was approved unanimously by the committee on Nov. 26.

Their report also provides suggestions for updating the Senate’s respectful workplace policy so the committee spends less time resolving skirmishes between lawmakers and more time protecting Senate staffers.

“The primary focus of the Respectful Workplace Policy is to protect people from exposure to inappropriate or illegal actions by those in a position of greater power or authority,” the committee wrote. Committee members “expressed concern about the level of resources being committed to the investigation for exchanges, which while unprofessional, do happen on rare occasions in response to the exceptional stress among members as legislation is debated.”

Unsuccessful appeal

After the Finance and Operations Committee ruled on the incidents between Benton and Rivers, Benton filed an appeal, calling the findings “bogus.” He also traveled to Olympia on Friday to defend his position in person. Committee members unanimously ruled on Monday to uphold their previous findings.

Benton said in his appeal that his use of the word “trampy” toward Rivers was not in violation of the Senate’s respectful workplace policy.

“I did not call her a ‘trashy trampy-mouthed little girl,’ ” Benton wrote. “I said that she was acting like a ‘trashy trampy-mouthed little girl’ as an illustration of how very out-of-place her language was as a state senator.”