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News / Northwest

WA lawmaker retaliated by releasing names of witnesses, says report

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: May 7, 2024, 9:20am

OLYMPIA — A state representative violated the House of Representatives’ respectful workplace policy when she named several employees who were identified anonymously in a prior investigation into her conduct, according to a report released Monday.

The Washington House of Representatives opened a second investigation into Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor, in late December, after she shared with reporters the names of several witnesses involved in the prior probe that found she had a “pattern” of bullying and abusive behavior.

The findings released Monday concluded Caldier’s actions were retaliatory against the employees whose names were redacted from public view.

The investigator, Kathleen Haggard, said Caldier “lashed out at the witnesses not only by disclosing their names, but by portraying them as political operatives. In doing so, she may have damaged their careers.” Further, Haggard wrote, Caldier did not have a “credible reason” for releasing the names and could have made her point without doing so.

Caldier’s appeal in the initial conduct investigation is still pending, according to chief clerk of the House, Bernard Dean, who said that a final decision was deferred while the second investigation was underway.

Caldier previously told The Seattle Times that she “in no way” meant to retaliate by naming some of the people in the report, and that she intended to link the investigation to her decision to leave the House Republican caucus in late 2022. The first report, she has said, was inaccurate and an act of retaliation soon after she left the caucus for not accommodating her vision loss and because of how she was treated by former leadership.

After the initial investigation was released, Caldier sent a emailed statement to about a dozen reporters, including at The Times. After emailing reporters with the information, Caldier inquired with Dean about releasing the names, who told her that doing so could constitute retaliation, according to emails provided to The Times at the time.

A couple days later, Caldier was informed about the new House investigation.

Caldier, reached by phone Monday, said she crafted her December statement with her lawyer and that they believed it did not violate the respectful workplace policy.

“The dynamic between telling somebody who has more power than you in a caucus room, that they’re a terrible person, is a very different dynamic than a state representative saying those same words to an intern,” Caldier said, restating that she was “the one getting retaliated against.”

Caldier said while a couple of small issues remain, the major issues with her accommodations including providing a way for her to see caucus slide presentations up close, and transportation, had been addressed.

Discipline for member misconduct can range from a reprimand to expulsion or intermediate steps like coaching or limiting access to staff. Members of the House and Senate face a high bar for removal from office, and only one member in history has been expelled from the Legislature, according to the new report.

Caldier rejoined the House GOP caucus in April 2023 after Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, stepped down from his role as leader of the House Republicans. He was replaced as leader by Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn.

Caldier asserts the investigation process was “was designed” to “punish” legislators who are vocal or that leaders had issues with.

Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, deputy House Republican leader, was reviewing the most recent report Monday and said he was unable to connect with Caldier, who was out of the country. He said leaders had not identified any remedial steps so far.

“What I think we would really like to do is make sure that whatever we decide is conducted with transparency, and that we do connect with Rep. Caldier before any decision is made public,” Steele said.

Legislators are considering a review of the institution’s process for investigating conduct complaints. A spokesperson for House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said lawmakers asked the Executive Rules Committee at the end of this year’s legislative session to convene a group of members to update the policy.

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“The speaker is open to potentially updating the House policy in a process that would be inclusive of all groups subject to the code of conduct (members, staff and lobbyists),” wrote spokesperson Jen Waldref. “At this time, she is waiting to hear back from members interested in leading this work.”